Saturday, April 14, 2012

Adventures In Tornado Alley

Yesterday (Friday), an F1 or F2 tornado hopscotched diagonally across Norman, OK...a town that locals said could never take a direct hit from a twister. Indeed, before very recent years, the last glancing blow we'd had from a tornado was around 60 years ago.

But climate change is changing everything. Now we get blizzards, catastrophic ice and hailstorms, hurricane-strength straight-line winds, hottest-ever-recorded-in-the-nation heatwaves, boat-floating floods, and tree-killing droughts. Sometimes all in one year.

Climate change is creating "weather war zones" all over the country. Yesterday, we had a hair-raising skirmish right here in town.

It began with a bit of grumbling thunder...certainly nothing to get excited about. Then, as "they" say, all hell broke loose.

A tornado dropped out of a rotating cloud near I-35 and Lindsey Street (the main artery to the University of Oklahoma campus). Someone caught this on video--in the background, a woman could be clearly heard exclaiming, "S--t!" The twister proceeded to decapitate an apartment house, then hopped and jigged right on across town.

Some streets are barricaded today, with utility repairmen restoring whole blocks of toppled power poles. The dancing tornado sucked out all the plate-glass windows at Sugar, a custom cake store across from the main post office downtown (the post office lost part of its roof).

One of the old park trees split in half.
Next door to the post office, the library was unscathed (unlike during last year's catastrophic hailstorm), but lost some trees. Sadly...oh, so sadly...some of the worst damage was visited on beloved Andrews Park, just behind the library, where most of the big old shade trees were destroyed. It will take generations for the park to look the same again. (Ironically, this is the same park where actress Helen Hunt walked her dog while in town filming the movie, Twister.)

Fortunately, the park amphitheater was undamaged by the falling trees.

Many, many big trees at the park, along nearby streets, and in a hopscotch pattern across town were toppled. Several of those uprooted trees growing next to the 1930s-era open storm drain on Dawes Street (including at Andrews Park) pulled up part of the drain's stone walls. (I hope a proper stone mason is hired to restore that damage!)

One of several tree uprootings that tore holes in the Depression Era storm drain.
 A block or so from the park, a building was destroyed, and heavy bronze statues on display outside the Crucible foundry were shifted around like chess pieces; a one-ton statue was moved 30 feet!

Farther east, a file storage building on Porter Avenue lost its roof. (We stayed clear of areas where power lines were down and structural damage had occurred, not wanting to add to the incredible traffic congestion along those least, the streets that weren't barricaded.)

One of five uprooted trees just west of Andrews Park.

During the storm, of course, we were glued to ongoing television coverage. At one point, a storm spotter gave the coordinates of "a large rotation" in the storm (from which a tornado could drop at any moment). The coordinates just happened to be directly, smack over our house. Startled, my gaze snapped to the ceiling and I froze, holding my breath (not the brightest response, let me tell you), until the storm spotter announced new coordinates that indicated the rotation had moved on up the road.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, though roofs were caved in, windows blown out, and vehicles turned to scrap.

The National Weather Prediction Center (located here in town, along with a bunch of other National Weather Service entities) is warning of possible "life-threatening" storms tonight. (Indeed, as I write this post, dangerous storms are firing up in the northwest part of the state, moving this way.) There was a time when I would hope severe storms would miss us. But having been through the weather wars more than once, I now realize on a deeper level that a miss here is a hit there.

Now, I simply hope the prediction is wrong, and the storms don't develop at all.

Good luck out there, storm weatherers, wherever you are.

And if you do experience a hit or a miss, I want to hear from you.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Since You Asked...About Greening in the Red Zone

The new year isn't even a month old, and communities from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South have already experienced severe—in some cases, deadly—weather disasters. Besides causing devastation to property, major extreme-weather events can be emotionally traumatizing. I know...I've been there.

In many ways, extreme-weather events, from ice storms to tornadoes to you name it, resemble armed conflicts and other man-made catastrophes: a major disaster of any kind has the capacity to alter lives and leave debilitating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder strewn in its wake. And as 9/11, post-Katrina New Orleans, and post-tornado Joplin so vividly showed up, this can be a community-wide issue.

So I decided to chat with Keith G. Tidball at Cornell University, about his groundbreaking work (with co-editor Marianne E. Krasney)Greening in the Red ZoneDue out this spring, the compilation book draws on the expertise of numerous experts—including Keith himself—to explore the psychological and emotional benefits of greening projects in the wake of natural or man-made disasters.

Courtesy Keith G. Tidball
 Q. Keith, what was the inspiration for Greening in the Red Zone?

A.I spent time as an infantry officer (USAR ) and later in the US Foreign Service (USDA). In my travels throughout the world, I was struck with two things: First, how so much of post-conflict and post-disaster response by institutions and militaries ends up being counter-productive in terms of the host society and their morale, their social and natural capital, and their resilience. Second, how often people recovering from war or disaster gravitate to interactions with "nature" as an important part of their recovery.

So, linking those two things became obvious to me, especially as I watched my friends and neighbors after 9-11 resort to greening and other human-nature interaction as important ways to cope with the disaster, the tragedy, and grieving.

So I hope to stimulate greater efforts by the research community to document through empirical work the phenomena of greening in the red zone. And I hope to influence policy makers and planners to incorporate elements of greening in the red zone in post-conflict and post-disaster response. This is of great importance as we look ahead to the necessity of navigating the hazards of climate change and related disruptions.

Q. Thanks to population growth and climate change, more and more destructive extreme-weather events are striking urban areas. How important is organized re-greening following a major natural disaster such as Joplin or New Orleans?

A. My research in those places indicates that it is very important. Not only does organized re-greening replace lost landscape elements such as trees, but it also replaces lost or damaged "sense of place"—and with that comes further investment in social and natural capital. So organized re-greening is important after major natural disasters for what it represents itself, and for the social and ecological processes and feedbacks it serves to restart and enhance.

Q. How important is the individual in a neighborhood or community-wide re-greening effort?

A. Each individual human is important, just like each individual tree is important in a forest. Yes, in large movements or large populations, individuals can seem to matter less. But that does not make them less important. I like the idea of Ubuntu in this sense, as described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "A person is a person through other persons." This is especially important to understanding our interactions as humans, and as members of social-ecological systems.

Q. Ten years down the road, what do you hope to have accomplished with Greening in the Red Zone?

A. It is my hope that national and international institutions and organizations will include in their post-disaster and post-conflict planning and activities, as well as in more general "development" planning and activities, the idea that persons' relationships with the rest of nature are of fundamental importance to their security, to their recovery, and to their resilience.

I want to see this important notion influence the way we do business, and then to see this idea percolate further into the consciousness of diplomacy, of markets, and therefor humanity.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Kiss Mistletoe Goodby

Mistletoe has been a part of holiday tradition for hundreds of years. Who hasn't seen a festively ribboned sprig hanging over a doorway, just asking for the next passerby to be kissed? That happy custom dates back to the 17th Century. (Then again, a much older custom, practiced by Druids, promoted hanging mistletoe to ward off evil spirits.)

Courtesy Paul A. Mistretta, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood Org.
All that good and bad mojo aside,  when we purchased our current property last spring, I was less then pleased to look up into a big elm tree alongside the driveway and spot numerous wads of mistletoe decking the branches.

Knowing what I know about the plant, I had no urge to kiss under it. I did, in fact, have an urge to give it the evil eye.

Mistletoe is, after all, a parasite.

There are two major groups of the plant: so-called true mistletoe, which infects oaks, maples and other hardwoods, as well as cypress and junipers; and dwarf mistletoe, which infests pines and conifers (other than cypress and junipers).

Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia

True mistletoe—the stuff of holiday tradition—produces berry-like fruits that birds love...and that's how the seeds get spread far and wide. I was somewhat relieved to learn that the true mistletoe infesting my elm is more or less self-supporting, and doesn't generally do serious damage to a tree. (I say "more or less," because the parasite does drain lots of water from its host, which can be lethal during our ongoing drought conditions. So I'll be doubly careful to keep that big elm well irrigated during dry spells.)

Removing as much of the invader as possible also can help. But the tree is too tall for do-it-yourself pruning. So this winter, I'll have a certified arborist take a look at it, to see if the branches can be cut back a foot from each infestation to help control the parasite. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the birds attracted to the berries.

The other type of this pain in the landscape, dwarf mistletoe, doesn't require birds to spread itself; it has seeds that are discharged explosively. This keeps the infestation "closer to home." As with true mistletoe, you can help control the dwarf type by pruning away infected limbs whenever possible. This often can help prolong the tree's life and improve it's health.

Chemicals are not very effective in controlling mistletoe. If an infestation becomes serious enough to cause the entire tree to be removed, then it would be a good idea to replace it with a species that is more mistletoe resistant.

Also...this cheerful holiday tradition is poisonous, especially to small children and pets. So while you're smooching under the mistletoe, make sure that no leafy parts drop to the floor.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Your Trees Might Not Make It

Winter is coming. Usually by now, giant acorns from our neighbor's burr oak tree are hitting the driveway like golf balls. Usually, squirrels are madly filling their winter larders with acorns and other provisions. Usually, I'm not this worried.

I don't see acorns in the burr, post, and blackjack oaks this fall. None. A few are up there in the branches, but they're so small—stunted by a devastating summer of record-setting heat and drought—that I spot them only when they drop onto the driveway.

I wonder what all the wildlife that depends on acorns and other seeds for winter forage will do between now and spring. I wonder if even a majority of them will make it to spring.

And I wonder about the trees themselves.

For landscapes in much of the country, this has been one of the toughest years in memory. If trees and shrubs weren't being flooded, or ravaged by high winds, they were being subjected to record-setting droughts and heatwaves. And let's not forget the blizzards and ice storms of last winter, or the catastrophic early snow in the Northeast this fall that shattered and felled countless trees that hadn't yet dropped their foliage.

Most tree species are built to take a lot—at least, they are when grown in the kind of climate where they evolved. Even so, there's a limit to what even the toughest tree can withstand.

We've had life-saving rains this past month, though experience tells us that the tap could shut off at any moment, plunging us back into the summer's exceptional drought. I have hopes that our trees will have enough soil moisture to tide them over at least until hard winter sets in. But we have our hoses at the ready, prepared to soak the ground around critical root zones if and when the soil starts to dry out again.

Other than that, it's a waiting game. Did some of the trees lose too much of their root systems during the drought? After being largely defoliated by a late-spring hailstorm, did they have enough leaves left to photosynthesize sufficiently and store energy? Will disease or pests attack before they can regain their former vitality?

Spring will tell.

Courtesy Pablo Solomon
I do have hope. Especially after hearing from my friend, artist Pablo Solomon. Pablo lost a big oak to a tornado three years ago. The same twister practically wrung the life out of a nearby mesquite tree. But this year, life sprang eternal, as the saying goes.

"After three years and a drought," reports Pablo, "the mesquite has decided to renew itself. Tough stuff."

His photo shows a healthy sprig of new growth sprouted from the side of what otherwise appears to be a dead stump—with the toppled oak in the background.

Which goes to prove my long-held belief that plants want to live if given half a chance. So we'll be ready with supplemental water this winter. And we'll be there to welcome our hard-weathered trees next spring if they're able to show up.

Monday, November 21, 2011

When Plants Get In Your Face

It all started innocently one spring, when I spotted a cute little seedling sprouting in the landscape bed near  the front porch. At first, I mistook the volunteer for a Rose of Sharon shrub, of which I had many. But when it shot up to shoulder height, I got the news: a mulberry tree.

I backed off, gave it a brief moment of thought, and decided, Okay. It'll grow up and shade the porch from the blistering summer sun. So I let it grow...and grow...and grow, barely four feet from the foundation. Of course, as the tree matured, its branches played havoc with roof shingles. During severe storms, its swaying and lashing threatened to do even more damage. And we won't even mention the masses of purple mulberries that rained onto the porch and got tracked indoors during the fruiting season.

Eventually, we had to remove the too-close mulberry. Sadly surveying the vacated spot, I replaced the volunteer with a crape myrtle that would grow and provide shade without turning into a 100-pound gorilla in the room.

All too often, trees growing too close to structures started out as volunteers that someone lacked the heart or the interest to evict. The tree at the right is undoubtedly one of those, its trunk pressed right up against a stone wall. (This sad example has the added misfortune of being wrapped in Treacherous Beauty.) Someday, this misfit will feel the bite of a chainsaw and be brought down long before its time.

But trees growing too close to structures were often put there on purpose. I've seen young Japanese laceleaf maples planted next to walkways in foundation beds barely 18 inches deep, when these pricey trees mature into mushroom shapes that will turn into an obstacle course for pedestrians.

And that's one of the most common mistakes homeowners make when planting trees: not taking into consideration their mature size and shape. Unlike the furniture in your living room, these important elements of the landscape cannot be moved around when their size or shape has matured into proportions that no longer suit their location.

Shrubs tend to be an even more common "too close for comfort" problem. When most people plant a tree, they expect it to get bigger, and so at least make an effort to plant it some distance from structures, even if that distance eventually proves to be not far enough. But for some reason, the cute little arborvitae or American holly plant brought home from the garden center in a one-gallon container often doesn't get the same amount of consideration.

Needless to say, an 8-foot-tall shrub growing 2 feet from a wall won't be able to mature into its full glory. And, as with a tree growing too close for comfort, the cramped plant is likely to be less robust, more vulnerable to problems caused by poor air circulation, and more apt to succumb to extreme weather conditions.

Even when shrubs are spaced properly, they're no gift to the landscape if they are neglected. The plantings at the left have been allowed to grossly overgrow their purpose,  darkening the windows from the inside and all but hiding the house on the outside. If this property were to be put on the market, the run-amok shrubs alone would be enough to turn off many potential buyers. And the overgrowth makes it impossible to do routine maintenance work on the exterior of the house.

On my own recently-purchased property, two crape myrtles were planted right up against a window bump-out, where they scrape against the paint and don't have room to grow into their proper shape. So,although they are obviously long-established plants, they will have to be dug up and moved out a few feet next spring. Then they will have to undergo rehabilitation pruning for several years to come.

How much simpler it would be if they had been properly located when they were originally planted.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Since You Asked...For The Weatherproof Your Landscape Holiday Gift List

Ordinarily, I don't like to jump the gun on the holidays. But, okay, you asked for it—and you must have known this list would be filled with practical items that every homeowner should have for maintaining trees and shrubs.

The fact is, most households do not own a full set of the basic non-powered tools for the care and repair of the landscape's valuable anchor plants. With today's increasingly extreme weather, these tools are a must. So here we go with my top ten recommendations:

Available from publisher:, or call
1-800-226-3822; or go to
1. Weatherproofing Your Landscape

I won't even blush. Anyone who owns a tree or shrub needs a copy of this book (perhaps tastefully packaged together with one or more of the next nine gift ideas).

This is suitable for both new and veteran property owners anywhere in the country, from California to Maine to Florida, and all points in between. (Much of the information is applicable to landscapes around the globe.) If you know someone who has relocated to a new region that has unfamiliar weather issues: yup, also a super smooth idea.

Recipients will thank you every time an extreme-weather event hammers their landscape—and as recent history has shown us, that's going to happen no matter where you live.

Bypass pruners, Courtesy Fiskars
 2. Pruners

These come in two basic types: anvil and bypass. Both are useful for small branches up to about finger-diameter. Pruners are a must for training young trees and shrubs into sturdy growth habits, as well as for removing small broken branches.

Anvil pruners, Courtesy Fiskars
 Anvil-jawed pruners (at left) have a cutter blade that chomps down on a flat surface. These are bulkier than bypass types, and so are more difficult to maneuver into tight crotches for close cuts.

More popular bypass pruners (above) have two sharpened blades that work with a scissor action. They'll fit into almost any nook and cranny, and  this definitely makes them my choice if I could own just one type.

Both types of pruners come in a wide array of models, some with easy-grip hands and other nifty features.

3. Loppers
Loppers, Courtesy Fiskars

As with pruners, loppers are available in anvil or bypass models. Designed for  larger branches than pruners can handle, they need to be built to stand up to heavy-duty use.

My old loppers have toiled in the trenches for three decades, and are still going strong. But what I'd really like is a set with telescoping handles, to reach up a little higher without resorting to a tree pruner (see blow) or having to break out a ladder...especially when dealing with an ice storm.

Power-tooth saw, Courtesy Fiskars
4. Pruning saws

Saws are a must following almost any tree-damaging extreme weather event. Again, you have a choice of two primary models: power tooth and bow.

Power-tooth saws (to the left) are great for removing branches that won't quite fit between the jaws of a lopper. The shape of this saw blade is ideal for making cuts close to crotches and other tight areas.

Bow saw, Courtesy Fiskars

Bow saws (to the right) are for larger limbs that are just short of needing a powered chainsaw. We've even used our bow saw for felling small trees. This can come in handy if a storm causes significant damage to a tree.

Tree pruner, Courtesy Fiskars
5. 12' tree pruner

This is a must for trimming broken branches out of trees following wind or ice storms, or even for basic manicure pruning to help prevent damage. The telescoping handle brings a range of branches into easy reach. I find this tool indispensable for pruning tall varieties of crape myrtle without having to resort to a ladder.

Shrub rake, Courtesy Fiskars
6. Shrub rake

Extreme weather events commonly leave a lot of debris scattered around the landscape. A shrub rake can reach into those tight places where a standard rake can't, so you won't have to get down on your hands and knees to grub out the yard trash.

Courtesy Water Right Inc.
 7. Water hoses

There are water hoses...and then, there are water hoses. Some high-grade hoses don't contain any metals or chemicals that can be harmful to pets or people. Some are sturdy enough to drive a truck over. Some are super-easy to coil, and never kink. So something as seemingly simple as a water hose can be a nifty and varied gift, indeed. This would be an especially good gift for anyone who lives in this year's vast drought area, where more of the same is forecast for 2012.

Courtesy Wells Lamont

8. Gloves

I'm not talking about those namby-pamby plastic or cotton gardening gloves that you find on store racks everywhere. If you're going to do serious maintenance or repair work in the landscape, you need something that will hold up and protect your hands. I stick with sturdy leather-palmed gloves that get me through the entire year no matter how hard I work them—and, yes, you can find them in women's and even children's sizes as well as men's.

9. Safety goggles or glasses

Nothing makes a bad day worse than getting a scratched cornea. And that's so easy to do when trimming overhead branches or reaching into shrubs to make just the right pruning cut—not to mention when using power tools such as shredders and chainsaws.

Today's safety goggles and glasses come in a wide array of cool styles to suit even the most discerning fashionista. Just make sure you select a model designed to protect your eyes from flying debris, not against chemical splashes or other industrial uses.

Courtesy Fiskars
10. Water catchment system

Nothing is more vital to the landscape than water—a natural resource that is becoming increasingly scarce. Water catchment systems will someday become standard equipment for all households. Indeed, they are already being built into many new homes, especially in drought-prone areas.

A system is available to fit every budget. So 'tis the season for making sure your loved one gets on the  bandwagon with a new water-saving system that can help tide over their plants during dry periods.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Earthworms...The Canaries Of Your Landscape

Weatherproofing Your Landscape is all about the health and weather-tolerance of your trees and shrubs. So you might be wondering: What do earthworms have to do with that? Well, it happens that these little squiggly creatures have a lot to do with your big anchor plants.

For one thing, earthworms are the canaries of your landscape. If you dig a hole a cubic foot deep and don't find at least 5 plump and lively earthworms, you can bet that your soil lacks the organic matter and microbial action necessary for healthy plant growth—be it pansies or a mighty oak tree.

Here's the scoop on why you should care:

Earthworm castings (poop) have a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) rating of 5-5-3. Castings sell for up to 25 bucks a pound. For every three earthworms, your soil gains around a pound of this high-grade organic fertilizer each year. Worm-friendly soil can host up to 25 earthworms per cubic foot. Do the math.

As if that weren't reward enough for treating these guys with royal respect, earthworms help neutralize soil pH by oozing calcium carbonate. (I guess you could say they're the Rolaids of the garden.) And their miles and miles of tiny burrows allow air, moisture, surface nutrients and roots to penetrate deeply into the soil. They also treat lawn thatch and harmful nematodes like Thanksgiving dinner.

Ya just gotta love 'em.

So here are some things you need to know about your little subterranean buddies.

• Earthworms have the sunlight tolerance of Dracula, coming out only at night to grope for food. (They collect on the surface and haul everything downstairs.)

• They like soil temperatures of 50F to 60F degrees. In the heat of a summer day or during winter, they burrow deeper to find that temperature.

• Move a worm to unfavorable soil, and it'll die, pronto.

• Earthworms have a taste for grass clippings and shredded leaves, as well as banana peels, coffee grounds, composted cow or rabbit manure, and ground eggshells. (Steer clear of pickled foods and salt.)

• When adding a powdery substance to the soil, suspend it in water first, or it'll desiccate worms.

• Even if you don't have earthworms, you probably have them. Worm eggs can remain dormant for long periods...until you create a favorable habitat for them.

• With earthworms, you don't need to till. In time, they will burrow up to 6 feet deep, turning the soil as they go.

• Earthworms breathe through their skin, so any chemicals used in the landscape will either repel them or kill them outright.

The best earthworm habitat I've ever seen was beneath a bird feeder outside my living room window. Over a period of months, birds left a layer of sunflower-seed hulls several inches deep. I could rake my fingers through the moist hulls and stir up masses of huge, fat, wriggly earthworms.

If only the robins had known...