The weather forecast said “up to an inch of snow” but what we got was sleet, freezing rain, and hard little ice pellets one step removed from hail. The roads turned into a skating rink. The schools let out ten minutes after they let in. There was a run on bread, milk, and eggs, proving yet again that the Weather Gods can only be appeased through offerings of French Toast.*
For ordinary mortals, this is obnoxious enough. For the wildlife gardener, however, an ice storm is fretful on multiple levels.
Ice is much rougher than snow on plants and animals. Snow is an excellent insulator, and you can often scrape off the snow and find green shoots coming up underneath. Ice is not so kind. Leaves that had unfurled in response to seventy-degree temperatures two weeks ago found themselves wilted back to the stems.
In truly bad storms, ice will take down trees. A few years before I moved in here, a massive ice storm killed close to a hundred trees on the property. Even after my boyfriend spent days with the chainsaw clearing the driveway, the trunks of downed trees still litter the woods. I used a half dozen of them as temporary edging for beds. Hurricanes don’t wreak a tenth as much havoc out here as ice.
This was not fated to be such a storm, but Carolina wrens and tufted titmice are much more fragile creatures than fifty-year-old pines, so I had my work cut out for me.
I pulled on my gloves and my extremely stylish Shark Hat** and went out to Do Some Good.
First I filled the feeders. Reasonable people can disagree about the amount of good that birdfeeders do, but in extreme weather, few will argue the point. I was stranded in Seattle during a freak blizzard once, and my host had every bird on earth in her yard. Varied thrushes came down from the mountains and raided her yard. I did some extraordinary birding just from the window.
The most poignant were two very cold hummingbirds. Freak weather doesn’t just catch the airlines by surprise. My friend went out every hour and melted ice formed on the hummingbird feeder. I have no doubts that those two birds survived the blizzard solely because from dawn to dusk, somebody made sure that they had enough fuel to keep going.
There are few hummingbirds on this side of the continent at this time of year, but there are plenty of other birds who could use a helping hand. I made sure suet, safflower, thistle seed and mealworms were plentiful. Then I took a hammer and broke up the ice at the edge of the frog pond. Doves promptly converged on the opening.
Ice being what it is, I had to come back every couple of hours and make sure there was open water. I also kept the birdbath attached to the deck thawed. Thrush-Bob, the hermit thrush who lives on our deck, sipped melted water on a rubber mat on the deck and attacked the mealworms zealously. Birds that I’ve never even seen in the yard, including pine siskins (who are pushing far south this year) flew in to root around under the feeder and sip water from the pond. (“Dear Project Feederwatch: I wish to say that this is a total outlier…”)
By the next day, the worst was over. Melting water formed plenty of pools for birds to drink. I kept the feeders topped up, just in case. Thrush-Bob taunted the cats. The Fed-Ex guy managed to navigate the driveway. The beagle put a paw on the frozen deck and gave me a piteous look—it’s cold! Would I…would I carry him down?
No, I would not. The beagle sighed heavily and clomped down the stairs on his own.
With the animals taken care of, the real question was the damage to plants. As Henry Mitchell, that grand old man, wrote many times, the gardener’s lot is to get balmy days followed by ice storms, so that the buds can be frozen off the camellias and the magnolias and leave the gardener distraught.
I have no camellias and the magnolia’s a sad specimen sited completely wrong, but I still understand this pain. So many things leafed out! So many things got covered in ice!
I’d say that native plants handle this better, but frankly, there’s not been much to choose—some plants did great, some didn’t. The native coreopsis took a serious beating and has withered, slimy leaves. The native salvia looks pretty ragged. One of the non-native salvias will not come back from this affront, I expect, whereas my potted English primrose flowered happily with ice coating the flower and is still happy this morning.
The English lavender looks pretty ragged. So does the Virginia agave. The native sweet flag is cheerful despite its nethers being completely encased in ice.
It’s never the ones you expect, either. The Agastache, which is native to areas somewhat farther south and west, doesn’t seem to have even noticed that the weather did something, and the Conradina canescens which ought to have died instantly and with extreme prejudice (and for that matter probably shouldn’t grow here at all, since it likes dry sandy soil in Florida and Mississippi) looks completely unruffled. Conradina is also known as “false rosemary.” The actual rosemary varies, depending on location, between shaking off the weather and being encased in ice to the point of likely death.
The temptation is to yell “OH MY GOD, CLIMATE CHANGE!” but some of these things are frankly just weather. In the normal course of evens, ice storms happen every few years here. As these things go, this one was mild and minor, and the casualties are few.
There are some gardeners who would have spent the first day piling mulch over things and perhaps throwing tarps over particularly beloved specimens. Me, I broke up the ice for the birds and went inside to make a hot toddy. Fighting the weather only gets you so far. It’s bigger than you are. About all you can do is make sure that the wildlife you’re looking out for has life a little easier, stay off the roads, and go out the next day to see who weathered the storm.
*Me, I skip all these things and buy alcohol and good cheese, on the principle that if I’m going to be stuck in the house for two days and possibly lose power, I will enjoy it.
**He looks like he’s eating my head!
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