For Release December 12, 2000

We Really Do Need Weather Like This!

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

We go along for several years, maybe as many as five or ten, with relatively nice weather. It gets hot and cold, wet and dry, but we tend to get along just fine. We get along too fine. The plants that we have planted are growing quite nicely. So we start to push the limits of common sense. Call it optimism or call it human arrogance. Call it a success until Mother Nature gives us one of the years, like this one, when we are reminded of where we live, and why we do and don’t grow certain plants.

The USDA has developed plant hardiness zones based on expected average winter low temperatures. The northern half of Kansas is in Zone 5B. In any given year, we can expect minimum winter temperatures of ten to fifteen degrees below zero. We will not reach that every year. Last winter we had a minimum winter temperature of twelve degrees above zero. In extreme winters we can see temperatures colder than fifteen below. Twenty below is not out of the question. Temperatures of zero and below are not out of the ordinary. Minimum winter temperatures of twelve are.

Minimum winter temperatures are only part of the plant survival equation. Does that extreme cold come with a decent snow cover or do we have bare soil? How long does the cold last? A cold that lasts a few days will be far less devastating than six weeks of below average temperatures. Was the soil dry or wet? Wet soil is going to protect roots and crowns better than dry soil.

Then we have to worry about summer weather. Extreme high temperatures are not normally as devastating as extreme cold temperatures. But continued high temperatures, coupled with low humidity, low rainfall and wind will literally cook some landscape plants even if you are watering them properly. This is exactly what happened this past summer. Spruces, yews and other landscape plants really suffered.

We haven’t had a year like this since about 1989. We suffered a lot of landscape plant damage that year, and we will find that we have suffered a lot of landscape plant damage once we are through the summer and winter of 2000/2001. Since 1989 we’ve had some really mild weather. We’ve had average and above average rainfall. We’ve had mild summer and winter temperatures. We’ve gotten lax, we’ve gotten forgetful and we’ve pushed some of our landscape plants into areas where they didn’t belong. Now we pay the price.

We know, for example, that yews are good landscape plants in this part of Kansas. But they are subject to damage from hot dry winds so we need to keep them in north and east exposures, away from the hot dry southwest winds of August. A lot of the dead and damaged yews, that I’ve seen, were planted in very exposed locations. There’s other plant material around that is going to show up dead next spring as well. In fact the damage may continue to show up for 12 months, or more, after the weather moderates.

I really enjoy weather like we’ve seen this year. It’s a wake up call and a reminder that all the money, science and technology in the world, can’t change Mother Nature. Her rules are ultimate and you can only fudge so long before you get caught. It doesn’t mean that you quit trying, though. You simply take notes, learn from your mistakes, scratch your head a little and then carry on. For this is Kansas, and every tree and shrub is a valuable asset.


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