Miss Floribunda: Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Maryland anymore
Dear Miss Floribunda,
Last week there was a tornado watch, and although we didn’t get an actual tornado, we got seriously strong winds that blew a couple of dead branches off one of my trees onto my tulips, smashing them and their flowers. I expected this to happen in March, but March wasn’t very windy this year. Furthermore, back in March there wouldn’t have been any tulips up and in full bloom, vulnerable to a blitz of branches. April is supposed to be gentle, with light showers and soft breezes. You mentioned in your last column about “extreme weather” being a part of climate change, and I suppose you were thinking of big storms like Katrina. While the changes I see in our neck of the woods are less extreme, I still am afraid I can’t have tulips anymore. What can any gardener do?
Terminated Tulips on 38th Street
Dear Terminated Tulips,
My first reaction is that you are old enough to expect a traditional April but young enough not to feel surprised about having a tornado watch at all. Before the destructive twister that claimed the lives of two University of Maryland students in 2001, the closest most Marylanders came to seeing a significant tornado was viewing “The Wizard of Oz.” However, tornado watches outside Tornado Alley, in the central U.S., have become the new normal in 21st century Prince George’s County, and my friend Mr. Meriwether at the National Weather Service (NWS) tells me that tornado season now starts in April and goes to November.
The storm you mention was part of what is being called the Easter Tornado Outbreak, April 12-13 of this year. There were over 120 tornados and damaging storms from Texas to Maryland. Scientists agree that warming temperatures have increased the atmospheric instability, which contributes to tornadoes, but are not yet sure about the effect on wind gradients that cause the twisting motion. The escalating warming of ocean waters is making scientists predict more and stronger hurricanes this year, as well. The Weather Channel predicts 18 named storms, including 13 hurricanes — four of which may well be Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. This is well above the 30-year normalized average. The NWS at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will issue its predictions in late May. Although hurricanes affect coastal communities most severely, they translate to high winds and heavy rain in our area.
Mr. Meriwether warns us to expect the unexpected at all times, no matter what the usual pattern of a month may be. I know only too well that his warning is correct, and I’m still embarrassed by the last column I wrote before the Snowmageddon storm of January 2010. In that column, I asserted that gardens in our area were in more danger from winter winds than from the usually light snowfall. Then came the storm that dumped 20 inches on Hyattsville and completely demolished a 50-year-old hemlock of mine.
Even more alarming than such dramatic events, however, is the now erratic pattern of rainfall, alternating between drought and heavy rain. If a period of drought is followed by torrential rain, soil that has dried to pottery hardness will not absorb the life-giving moisture, and the water will instead run off into the storm sewers.
What can gardeners do? Currently there are two terms used to describe climate change response: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation, which means finding other sources of energy than fossil fuels, is almost entirely in the hands of those we elect to office. Adaptation, however, is in our hands. Some people are putting solar panels on their roofs, for example, to capture energy and lower their electricity bills. Others are turning areas of their yards susceptible to flooding and turning them into rain gardens. Still others are using rain barrels to capture water for their gardens during the times of drought. It is especially important to water during times of drought, if only to keep the soil moist enough to absorb water when rains recommence. However, if the drought is severe enough, hosing your garden from the city water supply may be restricted, and collected rainwater will be your only alternative. Don’t forget to keep your plants well-mulched, as that is another way to preserve soil moisture during spells without rain.
What about your dread of having your tulips smashed again? Obviously, you might consider removing dead limbs before they fall, knowing that strong winds in spring are now a probability each year. I don’t know where you planted your tulips, but they were close enough to your trees to be in danger from falling limbs. You might plant them in more sheltered places in the future. Why not plant daffodils where you have decided not to replace the tulips? Daffodil stems are shorter and more flexible than tulip stems, and daffodils produce more than one bloom per stem. Their flowers are produced in succession, so one clout from a branch would not dash all your hopes. You might choose March-blooming varieties, and the naturalizing type, which will never need replacement and will multiply. You might even look to the far future and choose varieties that don’t need a winter freeze at all to produce flowers. So far there are no such tulips.
I would love to invite you to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society (HHS) in May, but doubt that the quarantine will be lifted by our usual date, the third Saturday of the month. Whenever the next meeting is scheduled, it will be posted on the HHS website, hyattsvillehorticulture.org.