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Trees dealt a nasty hand by Midwest ice storm

This oak should have been cut down before the ice storm, but definitely so now.

An enormous swath of the central Great Lakes region from Michigan through Pennsylvania and Maine was stymied by an epic ice storm just a few months ago.


The 2013 Christmas ice storm wreaked havoc on trees across Michigan.
Michigan – as well as Pennsylvania, New York, Maine and Ontario – suffered an epic ice storm the Saturday night before Christmas 2013.

While we knew it was coming, only a couple of degrees make the difference between rain and ice and snow.   This storm went all ice in Michigan – cutting power to nearly 381,000 households, many for a week or longer.

It was the worst ice storm in Michigan in 10 years, and the worst-ever storm during the lead-up to Christmas.  Which unleashed its own set of issues and hasty re-arrangements.

In our neighborhood, ice began pelting the roof about 8 p.m. and continued through the night.  About 3:45 a.m., I heard the first “gunshot.”  Then another, and another.

I got out of bed briefly to turn up the heat before the furnace went out (which it did) and saw the sky turning red and bluish.  Sleepy and thinking that was an odd thunderstorm, I later learned that was electricity arcing out of ice-popped circuits.

Apparently at about that time of the early morning, the ice became more than the trees in my neighborhood could bear and dozens upon dozens of branches began snapping under the weight of the ice and a stiff wind.

Branches would continue to snap off for the next day, and temperatures dipped well below freezing.  No sun appeared to melt off the ice.

Three months later, the signs of damage are still very evident including these photos taken in late April.  Piles of cut branches are stacked street-side, and large trees will show snapped limbs for years – a reminder of just how savage nature can be.

Some tree companie

Birches, like this gorgeous river birch, particularly took it on the chin in the ice storm.

s are not taking any new clients for 2014, as the deformed trees of their existing client base will take up the rest of this year!  And many of us just got done cutting down trees killed by the ash borer.

So if you have ice-damaged trees, what should you do?

It’s always a good idea to use pruners or a sharp pruning saw to re-cut branches that are peeled, twisted or jagged.  Clean, straight cuts always heal best.

Many people like to use thick, black pruning paint to seal these wounds – but horticulturally speaking, it’s really not necessary.

Some trees, especially birches, elm and yellowwood are likely to “bleed” from these jagged wounds.  That means sap will pour out excessively during the spring sap run until later in the season when they will heal the rift.

There’s not much you can do about that.  The open flow of sap could prove attractive to insects, and consulting an arborist may prove a smart move to avoid additional damage from insects, disease or virus.

Whenever branches are over your head, and especially when a broken branches is balanced in mid-air, you should contact a professional tree trimmer.  Getting the branches down is trickier than it looks, and even a glancing blow from a falling branch – tomorrow or in 2 days or 2 weeks or 2 years – could kill you or any children playing beneath them.

When the number or placement of broken branches creates an unbalanced shape in a tree, it is probably worthwhile to fell the entire tree and plant over.  The tree may never regain its natural, symmetrical shape or may be unsound.

Also use this occasion to consider any trees around the utility wires, including young ones that haven’t yet grown up into this space but are likely to.  While we would all like to say it’s the utility company’s responsibility to trim the trees, you can save yourself a lot of grief by removing trees and branches that are likely to interfere with your power and telephone lines in the future.

For the ice storm of 2014, the landscape clean-up will probably last a couple of years.  Most of the trees will survive, but it’s up to you to decide if they should.

The Michigan-Chicago tundra – 2 cold, 2 long?

Some of us have had >100" of snow this winter.  Was this a "good thing" for your plants?

While the sun’s rays are getting more intense and the days seem “longer,” after one more weekend of single-digit night temps and days below the freezing mark I’m getting antsy.

Is there such a thing as too much cold, for too long?  Well, I suppose so – but for most plants this has been a VG (very good) winter.

In Michigan, experts say that frost typically reaches 20 inches into the soil in the lower peninsula – make that 30 inches in a hard winter.  This winter – frost has crept down up to 4 feet deep.  But that’s mostly in uncovered areas like roadbeds.  (Which is what will bring up a big crop of potholes.)

In our yards and gardens, frost is only about 6 inches into the soil.  Surprised?  The heavy snow cover has insulated our yard and gardens since about the second week of December.

Insulated is a good word, when it comes to gardening.  And six inches of frost is about right.

Snow cover is well-known to protect plant roots from freeze-thaw cycles, and it keeps bulbs from being heaved up out of the ground.  It can prevent windburn and sun desiccation on evergreen groundcovers.

Snow also slightly raises the relative humidity around plants, which can make the difference between them drying out in the harsh winds we’ve had.

We also benefited from this epic winter because we didn’t have a February thaw – oh sure, there were about 36 hours there in the 40s.  The plants never broke dormancy, only to be threatened by a polar vortex.  (Anyone else never heard of polar vortex until this year?)

Many parts of Michigan, including Detroit and Grand Rapids, experienced near-record snowfall.  Over 110 inches in Grand Rapids.

The Great Lakes achieved 92 percent ice cover, the second-most in history.  Lake Michigan, which has significant impact on the west side of the state, was at 93 percent.  Our Great Lakes and inland lakes will be higher and the aquifers will be refilled.

And all of that together, means most of our plants will come through this winter in VG condition.  I’ve heard of some peaches and a few types of grapes, that are more cold sensitive, where winter damage is suspected.

But by and large, the epic winter has been easy on our landscape plants.  Frost in the ground and a later spring will also avoid too-early emergence of buds.

So relax about the plants, buy some mosquito repellent and get in shape.  Weeding season is just around the corner!

Cut back ornamental grasses now! Plus time-saving tips for doing this job


The prolonged cold weather – more snow this week? Egad! – does give you additional time to cut back all of your ornamental grasses.

If you even have 5 minutes on your hands, run into the yard and chop the grasses down to about 4 inches above soil level.  Pick them up another day if you have to.

The big yank to get them cut back is because you do not want green shoots growing up amidst the dead shoots.  Then the dead stuff is very difficult to remove.  The dead grass blades being very fibrous are likely to persist the rest of the season, and will be unsightly.

If you cut back too late, you will cut off the nice pointed tips of the new grass blades, will also create an unnatural look that persists all year.

So do this job right away!

A tip:  Tightly tie an ornamental grass clump together about 8 to 12 inches above the base with garden twine.  Then when you cut the grass blades won’t go blowing all over the place, thereby creating a second job of raking them up.

After the cut, grab your tied-up bundle of dead grass, shove it into a recycling bag and you’re done.

If you have lots of grass to cut, a hedge trimmer or an old electric knife can simplify this job.  Sometimes pruning shears require a lot of hacking, which is ergonomically tough on your hands – and it takes longer.


Butterfly bush blooms its butt off!


Butterfly bush – more accurately known as Buddleia (rhymes with Princess Leia) – is in

What better complement for the purple-flowering butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.) than an iron butterfly chair. Spotted at the Charlevoix Public Library.

its glory this year.

Abundant sunshine, warm temperatures and a mild winter have allowed this semi-hardy, semi-shrubby perennial flower to take off.

I have mixed feelings about this shrub.  On the one hand it’s a lot of work!  It produces scads of twiggy new growth every year, which must then be cut back in the spring.  Most of it dies back, but even if it didn’t you wouldn’t want a semi-shrub that got 20 feet tall with bunches of dead branches mixed in.

We had an easy winter in Michigan this year, so lots of the branches LIVED.  I have three of these, all purple – did I mention they like to seed themselves too? – and they all needed to be cut back to about 3 to 4 feet above ground.

That’s a lot of twigs to cut back artfully, then shove into a recycling back and haul to the road.  Or they burn really easily because they are dry and twiggy.

But once you handle that piece of maintenance there’s really nothing else to do except stand back and let them attract butterflies.  We routinely see monarchs, viceroys, black and tiger swallowtails, red admirals, pearl crescents, spicebush and other really cool butterflies.

We make sure we plant other butterfly-attracting plants as well, including petunias galore, calabrachoa in hanging baskets, honeysuckle vine, heliotrope, coreopsis, helianthus, verbena, penstemons and others.

Buddleia davidii is very tall (6-8 feet in Michigan, taller in milder climes) and robust.  This is not a bush to plant below your windows or in your front foundation.  Put it at the center of a flowerbed, with lower plantings around it, at the corner of a fenced-in yard, at the corner of the pool or other away-from-the-house location.

It does not require deadheading (pruning off the fading flowers).  I’m a stickler about doing this with other flowers, but it would be next to impossible with buddleia.  And there’s something attractive about seeing the flowers in various stages of color and maturity.

I’ve also never fertilized or provided winter protection for buddleia.  It is hardy to

You can probably get a butterfly bush for under $15, which is a bargain.  Remember that it’s not a year-around star (no fall color to speak of, no early spring features and no attractive winter bark), but it blooms its butt off in August when many other perennials are slacking.  - DD

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