Monday, January 31, 2011

Extremes - now the cold and probably snow

The Houston Texas area has escaped, on the most part, extreme cold this year. Yes, here north of the big city, The Woodlands has experienced three freezes, but we have not had the type of freeze that bursts pipes yet. Today, it looks like that good luck has run out. Over the next few days, we can expect the wind to drive subfreezing weather into pipes and plants. We need to take precautions. I am providing one useful online article that has plenty of information from FEMA on cold weather preparedness. Basically, we must wrap pipes and cover plants. But to cover them, we have to wrap them also. The wind will likely be our enemy this time. Therefore we need to secure the covering with rope or string. Cover the root system to minimize the damage to the plants, especially the sub-tropicals. Since we are likely to have snow showers also this week, the information provided on driving is also pertinent to our situation.  I find local drivers completely ignorant of driving safety and inept in handling vehicles in snow. Should we experience snow and ice on the roads, I would quite frankly recommend everyone to just stay at home. It is dangerous on the roads, especially in areas which do not normally experience frozen precipitation.  Otherwise, enjoy the change of scenery and get out in it with the family. I like to go to the parks here when it snows.

FEMA - READY AMERICA - Winter Storms and Extreme Cold 

Friday, January 14, 2011

When it freezes in the South

Here in The Woodlands Texas, it WILL freeze in the winter. In Southeast Texas, often people ask what measures should be taken to protect property and vegetation here, especially if they have not lived here long. First, the natural native plants do not need protection. They will take zero degree weather. However, we must concern ourselves with decorative plants that are usually tropical or semitropical natively. Most can tolerate near freezing temperatures but must be protected when the thermometer drops below 32 degrees. We have several things to worry about. A frost will kill tropicals even above 32 degrees, so we must cover sensitive plants to keep the frost off of them. When the temperature dips below freezing, tropicals must be tightly protected. It is best if the soil is moist. I like to spray my garden with water on severe nights. That helps insulate the root system. Wrapping the plant in a sheet and securing it with string helps to keep warmth around the leaves and branches. However, in a hard freeze that places the temperature at or below about 25 degrees for more than about 6 hours, that often becomes an exercise in futility as well. In those cases, cover the ground and wrap the roots. You have a shot at saving the plant but it may be dead  above the ground until summer. This past year, I had almost all my plants come back in the summer after a very hard freeze last year (18 degrees and below freezing for an entire day). The plants were not even covered, because we were out of town. This year, the same plants had living leaves on them after a 25-degree freeze lasting some 9 hours. Covering and insulating make a big difference to the survival and revival of the plant in the Spring.But you do not want the plants covered for an extended period of time. They need the sun. Depriving them of light for a long time will often damage them.

Protecting the home has other considerations.For light freezes, we do nothing. If the temperature gets below 26, then we take measures to protect non-insulated pipes. Many homes have no protection for their plastic pipes in the attic here. It is best if they are insulated, then you are less likely to have any pipes burst in the case of a hard freeze (below 25 degrees and the freeze lasting for 6+ hours). For a hard freeze, your automatic outdoor watering system is most at risk, along with the more obvious watering hoses. Your watering system has a back flow valve which protects your water supply from water flowing back from they yard. This valve is usually located close to the home and is quite vulnerable to a hard freeze. In the freeze of 2009, many homes had water flowing out from their backflow pipes after the freeze. Residents had to shut off the intake valve upstream of the backflow valve until they could get a replacement part. To protect this in a hard freeze, you can wrap it in insulated material. I use a small oiled tarp and completely wrap the exposed pipe and valve, tying it down with string to keep the wind from pushing air inside the insulation.

Finally, if the temperature drops severely for an extended time, the best course of action is to cut off your water to the house and open all the valves and facets to drain all water from the devices. Don't forget the hot water heater. Turn it off as well before going out of town. If you stay at home, you need not turn it off. We had a full week in a frozen state in the 1980's when the temperature never got above freezing outside. The ground froze that year! The temperature hovered just a few degrees above zero degrees F. for two nights and in the teens and low 20's the remainder of the week. Everyone should be aware that this could suddenly happen any year during the winter months. We usually have a four day warning that a hard freeze situation is possible. Cutting off the water supply should be done if you are traveling out of town for Christmas for more than three days every year you travel, regardless of the forecast. In fact, do it when you plan to be away for a week or more between November and March. Mid-December to the end of January is usually the worst of the winter here.

For a while we had rain

In The Woodlands Texas, specifically in Indian Springs, we continue in a drought. After 9 months of somewhat acceptable amounts of rain, the heavens closed down for the remainder of the year. We had to water the trees and the plants, even in November. At one point in November, my rain gauge had not retained a single drop for 37 days! The year ended with a deficit of more than 10 inches of rain or about 21% under the average rainfall for a single year. Fortunately, we are getting some cold weather to help with the bugs in the trees, but the trees may have considerable issues in 2011 with such a water deficit to start. Of course the critical time is from about May to November, when the temperatures are highest. Several of my neighbors' Pine Trees died during the winter. Let's hope the rainfall turns around this Spring so that we do not have such a hardship on local vegetation and wildlife as we did in 2009.