Sunday, January 10, 2010

This Past Week: The Texas Chill Country

Like most of the rest of the country this past week, the temperatures in the Texas Hill Country have been brutal. As temperatures dropped to well below 20°F for a few nights last week, those in this area who claim to know say it’s been the coldest spell in about fifteen years. And, while 20°F in January may not seem too bad for someone living in Minot, North Dakota, it is around here.

Winter weather in the hill country brings on its own set of unique behaviors among the folks who live here. During a normal winter, when the weather cools, residents perform what is known as the “Hill Country Shuffle.” On those relatively few nights when the temperature comes close to or dips below freezing, folks will shuffle their potted tropical plants inside the house for the night. The next day, with the rising sun, the plants are then shuffled back outside. On the coldest nights during a typical winter, it is not uncommon to see bed sheets thrown over the more delicate plants in gardens and yards.

This past week, however, as an unusually strong arctic chill settled in, extreme measures were needed as people sought to protect their landscapes and the significant investments made in their plants. Along with the so-called “shuffle,” the covering of plants with sheets and freeze blankets, many homeowners and businesses were also wrapping the trunks of smaller palm trees with burlap or other material, and mulching the base of the trees.

Following this cold snap, most of the palms I’ve seen (at least around where I live) appear to have come through the week reasonably well, although, I have seen slight bronzing of the fronds on some of the trees. The exception to this observation is for those trees which never should have been planted around here in the first place.

In our area, we can successfully grow about nine different types of palms, which include, California Fan Palms, Canary Island Date Palms, Date Palms, Mediterranean Fan Palms, Mexican Fan Palms, Pindo Palms, Texas Sabal Palms, Windmill Palms, and Queen Palms. In terms of Cycads, Sago Palms are also abundant. In some rare cases, with the right protection, other palms can be grown. Personally, I’ve had success with Miniature Date Palm Trees, which technically should not grow very well in this area. However, since I grow them right next to the warm house, the micro-climate probably accounts for their survival.

Even in the warmest of winters, there are some types of palms (like Bottle Palms and King Palms) which never make it through. The obvious reason is that they are far too delicate for even for our usually mild winters. And despite this fact, I see people planting them year after year with the same result, very dead trees. Part of the problem lies in the fact that local retailers continue to sell trees which are clearly inappropriate for our climate. Bottle Palms and King Palms will never survive a hill country winter, and the dead trees look awful.

The weather is supposed to warm up this week. This means that the plants inside the house will be shuffled back to the porches, decks, and balconies outside. In the yards and gardens, the sheets, freeze blankets, and trunk wrappings will all be removed from the plants and trees and shuffled back into the house. And, at least for the time being, another “Hill Country Shuffle” has concluded and the Texas Chill Country can once again return to being the Texas Hill Country.

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