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Big Snow Country
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

May 4, 2003

"Disaster," as garden author Henry Mitchell puts it, "is the normal state of affairs in a garden," and gardeners are generally quite adept at surmounting everyday disasters with only a minimum amount of grumbling. Here I mean events like the delphiniums toppling over despite assiduous staking, or the depredations of neighbourhood cats.

Full blown disasters are another matter altogether. Once-in-a-century floods or windstorms can wreck the work of decades and leave a beleaguered gardener undone. Other than some fierce wind storms, we've gotten off quite lightly this winter, especially compared with severe flooding in the Maritimes and that late ice storm in Ontario. But I well remember late winter of 1996 when the West Coast was struck with similar ferocity -- a freak late winter snowstorm that wreaked more havoc at our place than anything else had in the past twenty-five years.

Late one evening heavy rain thickened to wet snow. The weather service issued a snow advisory for the area.. Unconcerned, we stoked the wood stove and curled up cozily to watch a tape of "Pride and Prejudice." Before the movie was half done, the power went out. By then the snow lay ten centimetres deep with more still shoaling down.

A prudent gardener would at that point have gone out and shaken the shrubs and small trees to relieve them of their snow load. But with dozens of trees and shrubs to worry about, we let the pull of comfort push prudence aside, and went to bed.

All night we heard the creaking and wailing of big trees around our place, the awful cracking of large limbs breaking and crashing to earth. By morning the power was still out, the grounds mounded and heaped with more than fifty centimetres of snow and more still falling. The gardens and woodlands looked indescribably lovely, but also littered with disasters. I grabbed a broom and shovel and plunged out into snow well up over my knees -- the kind of snow I remember from Lake Simcoe in the fifties, the kind we re not supposed to get here in Canada s banana belt.

Wet and heavy as well as deep, the snow caused tremendous damage. Limbs as thick as a linebacker s legs lay torn from big cedar trees and scattered on the snow. A young cascara tree seven or eight metres tall was bent completely to the ground. Young alders were snapped in half..

Our planted trees and shrubs had fared no better. A large flowering plum tree was stripped of almost every branch. A twenty year old apple tree lay flat on the ground, completely uprooted. The trunk of a young pseudoacacia, thicker than a broomstick, had snapped off completely. Shrub roses and rhododendrons were flattened under contoured mounds of snow.

I shook and brushed and disentangled what I could. Fearing the worst, I was sometimes relieved: a two metre tall cryptomeria lying flat in the snow bounced up once relieved of its snow load. The same with various clumps of bamboo. None of the Japanese maples were damaged, though theyèd bent their limbs grotesquely under the weight. The cornus kousa dogwoods had also bent but refused to break. Released from its snow load, Harry Lauder s walking stick seemed to shake itself back into shape and proudly display its dangling yellow catkins.

The brittle woods fared worst. One flowering cherry that I'd carefully pruned to an open vase shape had lost about half its branches. A lovely little redbud had suffered severe breakage as well. Worst of all were the birches. The younger ones had bent down to the ground, just as Robert Frost described. The oldest tree in the grove, with a trunk as thick as a fencepost, had simply snapped in half.

The power stayed out for forty hours. The snow eventually stopped falling and within days melted away, leaving us with a lot of cleaning-up and remedial pruning to do.

Meanwhile, in the grand tradition of gardeners everywhere, we looked to salvage some good from this disaster. The toppled apple tree, for example, was one of three transparents we'd had growing for years, always producing far more apples than we could deal with. We'd often talked of cutting at least one of the trees out, but were reluctant to destroy a productive tree, even of inferior fruit. Now nature had culled one for us.

Similarly with our problematic birches. Robert Frost notwithstanding, birches don t do well on the coast. Unsteady on their feet, repeatedly diseased, woe begotten in appearance, they 'd been an ongoing embarrassment. But we'd hesitated to root them out. Flattened and cracked beyond redemption, they became far easier to part with.

I suppose too that I learned a valuable lesson about pruning for snow load, something I 'm sure hardy gardeners elsewhere in the country are already adept at.

Shortly before our record snowstorm I'd happened to be down in Oregon and saw some of the results of catastrophic flooding there. Huge trees lay uprooted in city parks and some gardens were still under water. By comparison our little snowstorm seemed fairly tame. I do marvel at gardeners everywhere who face these occasional assaults head on, pick up the pieces afterwards and keep right on going. Bravo!


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