By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 11:48 PM
This was not a good year to be a tree around Washington. The evidence is everywhere. Just look around. On my daily walk through a park near my house, I encounter a welter of twigs blanketing the ground like a collection of rustic tank traps. Branches have been stripped from trees as easily as a giant shucks corn. Some trees are heaved over completely, their root balls awkward in the light.
It's been this way since January, when we had that particularly wet and heavy snowfall.
"The snow was five inches in five hours, which shouldn't have been anything in our area," said Phil Normandy, plant collections manager at Brookside Gardens in Montgomery County. "And yet it was so heavy that halfway through the storm, big limbs were breaking."
Phil was out in his Kensington yard shaking snow off the smaller trees when he heard the sharp report of branches snapping off of big trees. "That's when I started going inside," he said. "In some respects, it did more damage than last year's snow, because it was immediate."
At the end of his workday, James Gagliardi, horticulturist at River Farm in Alexandria, likes to run on the Potomac Trail. "I'm dodging [fallen] branches all the time," he said. He oversees 25 acres overlooking the river, all of which needs tidying.
Charles Smith, senior natural resource specialist for the Fairfax County Park Authority, has his work cut out for him, too. His department typically gets one call a day to deal with downed limbs. The week after that storm, it logged 42 calls.
"It's been a lot more work for our field crews," Charles said. "They concentrate first on danger trees and clearing access. They look at things that are a danger to life and property and also access to facilities. After they address that, they look at the trail backlog."
The county has 200 miles of trails, and after six weeks of branch and limb clearing, the crews still aren't done. The snow might be gone, but the fallout remains. The parks in my area still have a rather messy look.
"What you've seen is triage," Phil said. Tree-age? "No pun intended."
When you work so closely with stuff that grows out of the ground, you notice when it's suddenly gone. Brookside didn't lose any signature trees, but it did lose a Chinese sawtooth oak, two persimmons and two purple plums. It has sent the more interesting wood to a carver in Ellicott City who will turn it into bowls. "The wood of the purple plum is quite beautiful," Phil said.
River Farm lost a large hemlock, felled during one of the wind storms that seemed to add insult to injury last month. "It had heaved from the ground," James said. "Everything had shifted. Azaleas were pulled up with it."
Charles worked for seven years in Chantilly's Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, where he'd gotten to know almost every conifer and hardwood. "There was part of a really large tree down that I remember from the mid-'90s," he said. "It was a large pin oak. They're really prevalent in bottomland and wetlands. About half the tree broke off. It'll be good woodpecker habitat."
I asked the men whether they ever got irritated by all the destruction. You work so hard to create a pleasing landscape and Mother Nature decides to wipe it from the slate.
"You can't get too stressed about it," James said. "The landscape is dynamic. It's always changing. . . . I try to take a more relaxed attitude."
And besides, each man insisted, just as it has every year, spring really is coming. They've seen the signs. Daffodils are already blossoming at Brookside Gardens, Phil said. Charles said, "Starting Friday, we had reports of wood frogs breeding in vernal pools and small ponds in multiple parks. They're laying their eggs. . . . That's a really good sign of spring."
Said James: "The snow drops are out. The crocuses are out. The tulips are starting to poke their heads out of the soil. And it's warm and pleasant to be outside. It's bad that we're out there picking up all these sticks, but I'm just happy to be outside. Any excuse is good for me."