Arbormageddon ice storm smites Austin’s trees

February 08, 2023

Icicles on whale’s tongue agave are lovely

Most people’s gardens become shady over time. My sunshine is rising. Extreme weather events over the past 15 years – droughts, hot summers and snowpocalypses – have stressed and thinned the tree canopy in my garden. A week earlier, on February 1st, Austin was dealt another blow when a snowstorm hit. Arbormageddon, the local wags soon dubbed it.

It wasn’t that cold — a degree or two below freezing — but still, Austin’s trees got more than an inch and a half of snow. Live oaks retain their leaves all winter. Loaded with snow, and stressed by extreme weather over the past few years, many of them could not withstand the strain. For two days and one night we could hear trees snapping, limbs being torn off and crashing all around our house.

Trees across the city also fell on power lines, sending homes and businesses into a dark and cold day. In our block, 6 days passed before power was restored. After seeing the damage across the city, I’m sure Austin Energy crews and people borrowed from other cities were working as fast and as hard as they could to get the power lines back under dangerous conditions.

We were lucky that our house and vehicles, decks and patios were largely untouched. A few fencing panels were damaged and we lost an A/C unit.

About 50% of the plants below me, like this Red Bered Possumhao, have been crushed by falling limbs. But the agaves, large yuccas, bottle plants and stucco walls survived. It was bad but could have been a whole lot worse.

Along our road, the broken live oaks looked like a small tornado was spinning.

The tree in my neighbor’s yard

Crepe myrtles have held up well overall. This one at the neighbor’s house was lovely snowed with all the snow.

While sad about our trees, I have moments to appreciate like my driveway border, looking beautiful even in late winter and under a layer of snow. There is no tree to be crushed here! Hooray for ornamental grasses, yuccas, purple skullcaps and ‘Powis Castle’ Artemisia.

Pine Muhli (Muhlenbergia dubia), one of my hard nail favorites, coated in ice

Whale tongue agaves (Agave ovatifolia) sailed through the ice storm, as did the red yuccas (Hesperaloe parviflora) The anacacho orchid tree in the back is bent on the ground under the snow but has already straightened. Toothless sotol in steel pipe can be a goner though; It also didn’t like the arctic ice of December.

Squid agave (Agave) can easily handle temperatures in the low 30s and frost, even in a container. The Japanese maple bent but didn’t break — and luckily the live oak limb missed the fall.

My husband took weekends off and took the limbs and piled them on the road. I did the same with the smaller organs on Monday. On Tuesday our tree guy came and spent the entire day removing dangerous broken limbs from the canopy as well as huge limbs on the ground that were too big for us to tackle easily.

Here’s how things looked across our yard before all the cleaning

Texas mountain laurel my daughter grew from seed—mostly recovered from snowapocalypse damage—struck directly from a large live oak branch.

Half of it has been cut off, and the other side is now tilted at a 45-degree angle. I think it will survive though. We’ll bet on trying to straighten it out again.

The owl box tree has lost about half its canopy. A large branch fell into the pool. Another on the stucco wall. Chairs and walls were spared – yes!

Another angle shows the extent of tree damage.

A large limb came down across the garden but missed the shed and bottle plant. Two boxwood balls sustained some broken branches, but at least they were still standing.

This cluster of live oaks, which were recovering from burial of their original area long ago, has lost significant branches. I hope they will be ok. A metal arbor (falling on the surface) took a direct hit which broke it.

This place is going to be much sunnier and hotter this summer. But that means different plants to try. I was leaning towards planting sedge in my stock-tank planter. But now, with less shade, I’m considering silver ponyfoot after all.

Meanwhile, until the city picks up our Arbormageddon pile or our tree man gets to it, we’re enjoying our new castle home. This 6-foot-tall pile of stacked limbs (not including our tree guy’s full day of cutting down) stretches along the island bed from our street frontage…

…at the property line on the other side of the driveway.

If it could keep the deer away, it might be a worthwhile trade – haha!

Damaged oak pruning? Do this to avoid spreading oak wilt, which kills the tree

If you have frost-damaged oak trees, especially live oaks or red oaks, here’s what you need to know. The tree disease oak wilt is fatal to most live oaks and red oaks that get it, and it spreads easily from a diseased tree to a healthy tree. The fungus that causes oak wilt is spread in two ways: 1) underground via interconnected tree roots and 2) above ground via a beetle that is attracted to tree sap (from cuts and wounds) and is most active from February through June in Central Texas. .

We are currently don’t cut Months for live oaks to prevent the spread of oak wilt. Obviously, you need to trim dangerous overhanging branches from your trees now so they don’t fall on you or passersby. Get it done as soon as possible, and make sure those cuts are sealed with paint immediately — right when the cut is made so the beetle can’t get into it.

But don’t trim away all the ugly tears and severed limbs on your oaks just yet. Plants will close those wounds within the first few days of injury. Cutting them now opens your trees to oak wilt exposure. Schedule non-emergency, aesthetic pruning in July or later. Late fall is best, when plants are no longer under summer stress. Here in Central Texas, oak pruning should be done from July through January, when oak wilt beetles are less active. Also, be sure to sanitize pruning tools before starting and between trees to prevent oak wilt fungus from spreading from tree to tree.

Click here for more information on oak wilt and how to prevent its spread.

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Learn about garden design from the experts here Garden Spark! I host private talks with inspiring designers, landscape architects, and writers several times a year in Austin. These are limited-attendance events that sell out quickly, so join the Garden Spark email list to be notified in advance. Just click on this link and ask to be added. You can find this year’s speaker lineup here.

Plan to join Budding Plant Sale and Festival March 18 at John Fairy Gardens in Hempstead, TX. There will be rare and unique plants, as well as art, ceramics, jewelry, food, drink, music and other entertainment for the whole family. Members have early access and get free. Non-member admission is $5. Children under 12 are free.

Experience a surreal garden at the Zilkar Botanical Garden, with an enchanting neon-art display throughout the park, food and drink, music and dance, surreal performers and interactive art sculptures. Surreal costumes are encouraged! 25% of event proceeds benefit the Zilker Botanical Garden Conservancy. April 6 (VIP Night), April 7-8 and April 13-15 runs from 6:30pm to 11pm.

All material © 2023 by Pam Penick for Excavation. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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