We were warned. We knew it was coming. The winter solstice fell on December 21, 2013. And then winter welcomed us with a wallop in the form of an ice storm of unprecedented magnitude not seen in this area in recorded history. Ice storms are rare in southern Ontario. Two to four hours of freezing rain at a time, mounting to 17 hours of freezing rain over several days is an example of a typical ice storm. But forty hours plus of freezing rain in one big event? It sounds dramatic. It was. More than 300,000 households representing approximately 750,000 people lost electrical power, just in the City of Toronto with a population of 2.8 million (fourth most populous city in North America).
In winter, bring together three ingredients, i.e., types of precipitation – rain, frozen and mixed. Add an influx of cold air, preferably a polar vortex to create a deep freeze and seal everything with a thick coating of ice. Shake a dusting of snow over top. Best served chilled.
Wunderground is a very interesting website for weather geeks. Radar Maps can be generated showing time lapse progression of a storm moving through. Hint – click to remove weather stations/temperatures to declutter. At the bottom you can change the date and time to view the progression at many speeds (e.g., 5 or 10x is good). Warning: this site is very addictive. You could spend much time cruising around checking out temperatures and storm events.
Wither the weather
We have a habit of talking endlessly about the weather. Neighbours and even strangers bond over this. Now with the ice storm, we really had something to talk about. After the storm, when we first greeted people with the preliminary ‘hello’, we quickly cut to “did you lose power and for how long?” Invariably, the second question was “did you lose any trees?”
Once the storm moved through, it was time to survey the damage.
In the front yard, the Norway maple (Acer platanoides) dropped another branch. Every major storm event seems to cause it to shed more branches. Last time, my car parked on the driveway suffered the Norway maple slings. This time, it punched out the rear window of a car parked on the street. The ice coating added considerably to the weight of the healthy branch.
My poor meadowsweet shrub bowed down to the ice storm. I trimmed back some twigs before winter but left three beautiful flower heads which bent right over, two of which froze to the ground.
Meanwhile out back was another story…
I had written about my backyard being surrounding by eastern white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) on the north, south and east sides. Cedar sense around?! Sure felt like it now! The fence-line cedars on the south side had doubled over, almost touching the ground!
Living on the edge?! Definitely! We had to crawl under the vegetation on our hands and knees to get to the garage, only to find the lock frozen! So, we had to keep our curbside compost, recycling and garbage indoors and wait for a thaw.
The overbearing cedar foliage hid my birdbath and shrubs: dogwoods, nannyberry, witch hazels and American hazel. They were all forced into a downward dogwood pose. I had no idea of their condition. I would have to wait for a thaw to gain access to assess them.
Misery loves company. To add more to the woodland woes, it snowed which heaped more weight on the already overburdened foliage. The cedars sagged even more.
Now, let’s throw in a few wayward tree branches to stir things up…
The red oak (Quercus rubra) next door dropped at least five branches. One large branch smashed the top of the fence and struck one of my cedars hard enough to crack the stem. Another large branch fell, crashed through the top of the neighbour’s garage roof, ripped the communications lines off the side of their house, dinged another neighbour’s car and stripped the upper foliage on a couple of my east side cedars in a domino-like effect.
The intruding branch landed in my backyard and was caught up in my neighbour’s phone and cable wires, strangling my cedars.
If ever there was a time for a gardener to feel totally helpless, this was it. A number of my cedars were bent right over, all my shrubs were trapped and everything was frozen in place with a 3 cm (over 1″) thick carapace of ice topped with snow. The only thing I could do was shake off the snow, gently so as to not break foliage, buds or branches. It took some of the weight off but I could do nothing about the ice but wait for a thaw.
We had to wait several days, but when the sun returned, the ice started to melt. The cedar foliage was unleashed finally and in turn released the shrubs which had incurred a few broken branches. Overall the stems showed much resilience given the winter stress test.
So, I wonder about the rest of the neighbourhood and beyond?
To be continued…
Originally published January 26, 2014 on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens