January 2024 update

Well, the ice storm arrived and the power went out, so I did not get to the last part of the Mexico series. Out of all of the posts for the series, I am most excited about this upcoming one on the native plants of El Vallecillo, a small village near Chihuahua City. And, surprise surprise, I am going to break it into two posts because there are roughly 120 photos that highlight the incredible diversity of plants I found there. I am in the process of trying to identify the plants, which isn’t easy because plant lists for the Mexican side of the Chihuahuan Desert are hard to come by. Who knows if I will meet that arbitrary January deadline I set to finish the series. In the meantime, I thought I would do an update about the ice storm and how we’re faring in the New Year.

Let’s start with the beginning of the month. On New Year’s Day, we were pleasantly surprised to see a herd of elk on the way down the hill from Leonard and Fred’s place at Dancing Oaks Nursery. L and I were just a couple days back from Patagonia, so we were exhausted and heading home to get some rest. Our car spooked the elk as we drove by, so I got an action shot as they trotted away.

We were watching the forecast closely because early models were predicting 8-12 inches of snow for the middle of the month. But, the forecast kept changing dramatically. I was relieved when it shifted to 4-6 inches of rain, and then the slow sense of dread crept in as it shifted once again to freezing rain followed by a cold snap with lows in the teens. The last ice storm in 2021 was scary, with trees collapsing in the woods all around us and days without power. So, we started preparing for the worst.

I made sure we had enough gas to run the generator for a few days. I can’t tell you enough how much I hate these new fangled safety gasoline containers where you end up splashing gas all over the place trying to get their stupid human-proof nozzles to work. We usually end up just unscrewing the nozzle and pouring directly from the can. Why can’t they invent one of these things that actually works? If anyone knows of a better model and where to get one, drop it in the comments.

We waited until the day before the storm to stock up at the grocery store, which was a mistake because it was thronged with people all doing the same thing. Back at home, I had already covered our agaves (A. parryi ‘JC Raulston’ and A. bracteosa ‘Calamar’) with buckets, hoping that they would have a chance to dry out some before the freezing weather arrived. It had been pouring rain for days on end and I was worried about a repeat of last winter when most of our agaves died in a similar event – wet sopping soil and leaves followed by a hard freeze = dead agaves.

I peeked under the bucket that afternoon and was surprised to find a little dead mouse speared on one of the leaves. Yuck. The good news was that both the mouse and agave leaves were dry.

With all the rain, the creek was running high. I was irritated to see that the tarp that the neighbors put in the creek last summer was now downstream, where I can see it from our yard. Now, I have to look at it all winter until I can go in and retrieve it later in the spring.

I took a quick look around to see if there was anything else I wanted to accomplish. I plugged in the heat tape and heater for our pump house and plumbing – they freeze at temperatures below 20°F. However, I decided not to protect any other plants – whatever makes it, makes it. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years worrying about how the garden would survive other bad weather events – cold snaps down to 10°F, heavy coatings of ice, 20 inches of snow, heat waves to 113°F, drought for almost 4 months – it was exhausting and the angst wasn’t worth it. This time I decided to just let  things be and see how it all played out. It was a relief to relax a little bit into that state of mind.

This laissez-faire attitude is relatively new for me. It comes and goes, depending on the attachment that I hold for the plants in question. Here’s a prickly pear that doesn’t like our winter rains. I don’t have any particular attachment for it, so it will be easy to toss when the time comes. A loss that will be easy to bear. It’s only my sense of curiosity coupled with a dose of laziness that keeps it around for now. There’s a type of beauty in those black spots and the orange crust of callus covering each green pad.

There are a few things blooming here and there, a Garrya x issaquahensis ‘Glasnevin Wine’ in the north creek garden and an unnamed orchid at work.

The ice storm arrived early Saturday morning (1/13). I remember briefly waking up to the sound of wind and ice pellets hitting the bedroom window at 3 am, then falling back asleep. The temperature dropped from 44 to 17°F, so by the time we woke up, there was a light crust of hard, pelletized ice over everything. I spent most of the day indoors, making periodic forays outside to feed the birds and thaw the hummingbird feeder. I am a little ashamed to say that I tried brushing the ice off of our Phlomis fruticosa var. nana and only ended up shattering the leaves. I quickly stopped that nonsense.

Shattered leaves through a steamy window. Luckily, this shameful act was quickly hidden under more ice.

Linnaeus, our new, young cat spent hours chattering his teeth in excitement and watching the birds in the driveway. L started the woodstove and I decided to make some cardamom roll dough to start proving while the house was toasty.

The hummingbird feeder was freezing up every 1-2 hours, so I ended up increasing the sugar concentration by about 25%.

We were counting ourselves lucky that we still had electricity and that the ice was slowing down, when suddenly everything went dark around 6 pm. The power was out. There wasn’t much natural light left, so we spent a few hours lightly bickering and trying to figure out why our generator kept tripping when we plugged in the refrigerator. Nothing like a little stress to point out the holes in our disaster preparedness plans. I brought in several bins of plants from the greenhouse because we didn’t know if the generator had enough capacity to run the greenhouse oil heater. The larger and less choice plants got left behind. Ice was starting to form on some of the pots by that point, but we had to focus on our other priorities. I guess we weren’t as prepared as we thought we were. We finally got it all figured out around 10 pm and eventually fell asleep to the sound of the generator.

Electricity buzzed back on around 3 am. We spent about 45 minutes shutting down the generator and getting things switched back when the power went off again! So, the shuffle started all over, starting up the generator, blah blah blah. 30 minutes later the power came back on, this time for good. It was a long night.

We slept in late the following morning and I finally got those cardamom rolls baked as a treat for surviving the night. We’ve made some adjustments to our emergency plans and now have a better understanding of how our generator works for next time.

Linnaeus took it all in stride, finding one of the best places in the house to contemplate our cold winter weather. I got a few mrrps of annoyance and an irritated look when I interrupted his nap to take pictures.

Cold and sunny on Monday and Tuesday. Work was cancelled through Thursday because of the ice. I went outside briefly to feed the birds and take a few photos. It was so cold, the juncos came swarming to the birdseed while I was still spreading it around the driveway. The hummingbirds disappeared completely. I hope they didn’t freeze to death.

10 am Monday morning looking towards the back of the property at the pump house. The orange bucket covering JC Raulston is just visible in the center.

Over the years I’ve tried taking photos that show how beautiful Aristotelia fruticosa is, but it’s hard to get enough contrast to highlight its unique branch structure against the general background of the garden. I don’t get why more people don’t fall in love with this shrub and I want to show them what they are missing. Well, I finally got some ice to highlight the branches and now I’m not that impressed either. There is something special about how the entire plant comes together as a whole (leaves, stems, branching structure) that is still missing and hard to capture. Better luck next time.

I’ve decided that this will be one of our 2024 projects. We will have lived here 16 years in July and every winter it’s a struggle to keep that darned crappy door closed and keep the heat in during a cold snap. Time for some insulation, repairs, and decorative upgrades to make it more functional and attractive. That’s plastic bubble wrap wedged into the gap at the top of the door. Disgraceful. I need to start perusing garden sheds online to find some ideas.

Not sure whether the potted oleander (left) survived the cold. Inside the greenhouse under the ice, some frost damage is becoming apparent from when the power was out. I’ve shifted the plants that were moved inside during the storm back into the greenhouse, though I haven’t taken them out of the bins yet.

Dangling blobs of ice developing on branches in the creek. Neat.

Wednesday saw another bout of ice as a warm front moved in. Rain fell steadily during the day and froze instantly as it came into contact with the ground. This wasn’t the more pleasant pelletized ice that simply smothers plants, but the solid, heavy, slick stuff that snaps trees and powerlines. Plants like this Arctostaphylos manzanita quickly started drooping under the weight.

Cotoneaster adpressus ‘Tom Thumb’ looked like an icy wonderland.

The McKean’s hebe (Veronica cupressoides ‘McKean’) looked for all the world like green coral.

Lots of ice on Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’.

My newly planted Callistemon pityoides ‘Harry’.

Although the ice did nothing to highlight the cool branching structure on the Aristotelia fruticosa, it did a fantastic job on the zigzag branches of Muehlenbeckia astonii.

The appropriately named Cylindropuntia whipplei ‘Snow Leopard’.

I did peek at JC Raulston. Still dry and no more impaled mice.

The ice did a terrible number on our row of arborvitae that help block out our neighbor’s ugly shed. Some of them have developed a permanent slump and will need to be tied back up now that things are thawing out again. The closeup of the iced over foliage didn’t turn out nearly as artsy as I had envisioned. I’m posting it anyway.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Treasure Island’

Lots of black leaves developed on various plants around the garden. The 1-2-3 punch of warm, soggy wet, followed by ice and a significant temperature drop wasn’t the best for many broadleaf evergreens. The Arctostaphylos edmunsii ‘Rosy Dawn’ wasn’t a surprise, it gets a lot of black leaves every year. However, other plants like the coyotebush (Baccharis pilularis, right) turned black for first time that I can remember, not to mention being flattened by the ice. I’ve not looked too closely, but I see the same thing happening on several of our rosemary, sage, and other plants around the garden. Sigh. At least replacements for those will be easy to find.

One plant that is supposed to have purple-black leaves is Pittosporum divaricatum. Looking good! Hoping it sailed through all this weather just fine without any damage, though I might be hard pressed to tell if it was.

And, in other news, we woke up to find Linnaeus limping around the house Wednesday morning. Turns out he had jumped on top of our woodstove during the night and severely burned his paws. The back legs are particularly bad and had to be bandaged to keep him from licking his second degree burns. He’s pretty miserable and agitated. We’ve been trying to keep him knocked out with narcotics and anti-anxiety meds, but it’s a struggle to keep him from chewing at his bandages even with the collar. Last night one of the bandages came off and it was awful for all of us trying to get it back on. It’s such a terrible, helpless feeling seeing somebody in pain and not being able to do much about it. Looking like a few weeks of recovery at this point.

Just hanging out together on the couch today, writing a blog post as he dozes off and on while watching the birds. Lots of Steller’s Jays, juncos, varied thrushes, and rufous sided towhees picking about. I just saw the male Anna’s hummingbird, so at least he survived. I haven’t seen the female around yet.

Whew, it’s already been a rough start to 2024. Lots of drama at work, several illnesses and deaths among friends and family, and things are potentially looking grim for the rest of the year in other ways. Trying to keep it together and remain grounded. I’m grateful for the close friends and family that help make things better, and for all the good things in life that are still there if I refocus and pay attention to them. Blogging has been a great distraction too. I know many of us are going through similar trying circumstances for a number of reasons. Hang in there out there. We can get through this.

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Kris P

    That is a turbulent start to the new year! Much as I complain about drought, ice is certainly a bigger challenge, especially in terms of safety hazards. Ice is pretty in the abstract but less so upon its departure – I hope most of your plants bounce back. And poor Linnaeus! I hope his burns heal quickly and that he remains wary of the woodstove for the rest of his life. My cat spends the winter on her heating pad (specially made for cats) but I guess that’s of no use if the power goes out 🙁

    Best wishes for better conditions throughout the remainder of winter.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Thanks Kris, we’re hanging in there! I’m not too worried about the plants – the hardy stuff will make it. Our main concern is how to keep Linnaeus from pulling off his bandages while we are away at work over the next two days. He pulled one off in front of me today and it was an ordeal to get a new one put on. Off to the pet store to see if we can find a bigger cone for his head.

  2. Jennifer

    I have read everything you have written about Chihuahua. Learned quite a bit and am looking forward to the remaining two. You have such a talent for interesting conversational story telling. I could feel the anxiety as you described the experience of the extreme winter conditions. Poor kitty with the stove misadventure. May he heal quickly. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      I’m glad you are enjoying it, thank you Jennifer. We’re ready for some calmer days around here. Took a look around the garden and most things are looking okay. Linnaeus seems to be feeling better too.

  3. Elena

    So sorry your year has started with so much hardship, hopefully it will get better as time goes on. Your photos of the ice-covered plants are very beautiful! I particularly liked the PIttosporum divaricatum with the evergreen hedge–hope you’ll post another photo of it in the spring so we can appreciate the foliage. Thank you for sharing these unusual and lovely scenes!

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Yes, hopefully just some temporary bumps in the road, so to speak. Looking ahead to when things are calmer. The Pittosporum divaricatum is a pretty cool plant, but very hard to photograph well. I’ll do my best!

  4. Tracy

    My goodness, what a week! Poor Linnaeus, oh I hope he is feeling better for both your sakes.

    The dead mouse, I gasped when I saw the picture – you must have been shocked checking under the bucket.

    Having the plants in bins, was a smart do ahead. I can only imagine how frustrating the power flicking off & on like that. Your bird friends are so cute.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Yes, Linnaeus seems to be feeling better today and less miserable. I certainly was shocked to see that mouse. Took me a good moment to figure out what it actually was. The birds have been great for all of us – I wish I could get better pictures of them, but would need a different camera setup.

  5. Denise

    I hate designs that defeat the intended purpose, teapots that don’t pour without spilling, etc, even worse when the liquid is as dangerous as gasoline! Very much appreciated this detailed account and good to know you got through it relatively unscathed — except for potential plants losses and poor Linnaeus! Best wishes for his swift recovery.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Yes, I miss the old metal gas cans with a simple, straightforward nozzle. It will be nice when Linnaeus is all healed and we can look back on this and laugh!

  6. danger garden

    Your shot of the Cylindropuntia whipplei ‘Snow Leopard’ is most excellent! So bizarre about the mouse, how do you think he got in there? Were there obvious signs of digging? I am so sorry that Linnaeus is hurting, that’s heart breaking and I can very well imagine how horrible it is for you and L.

    Did you hear about the greenhouse collapsing at Dancing Oaks?

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      No signs of digging with the mouse. I think there was probably enough space between the bottom of the bucket and the gravel. Yes, I did hear about the greenhouse at Dancing Oaks. That was my favorite one too. Always love a propagation house with all those little mini plants.

  7. danger garden

    Oh, I forgot to say, Garrya x issaquahensis ‘Glasnevin Wine’ is dreamy! Hope it fared okay with the ice load.

  8. Beth@PlantPostings

    Well, the ice is stunningly beautiful, but it’s the worst for plants, isn’t it? We’re moving from single-digit F highs for 10 days directly to 30s and freezing rain…no “normal” winter weather. Your photos of the elk and the plants and your surroundings are amazing. I can’t imagine having hummingbirds in winter weather…poor little buddies. I hope both of us will have more “normal” weather soon. Take care.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      It is quite beautiful. Sorry to hear how cold it is over there. I remember well those bitterly cold days, but it used to stay cold, not cycle to rain and back to freezing again. Awful.

  9. hb

    omygoodness have you had a heck of a time. Whew. Family tragedies, your poor kitty–plants seem the least of it right now.

    I admire your fortitude–yes we can get through this. Si, se puede. We must.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Definitely, plants were the least of it. I am ready for some good news! It’s nice to get lost for a little while in the online world of plants.

  10. Oh man, what a storm. Such a drag about losing power, doing the generator, losing power etc. It sounds exhausting! But your laissez-faire take on this storm is where I’m at, so can totally relate. I think you guys had it much worse – and your poor kitty! But damned, those rolls look amazing. I hope that your garden bounces back just as you like it and you get the blue tarp out of the creek. That would drive me nuts.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      We’re doing okay, all things considering, and the cardamom rolls helped too! Linnaeus was back at the vet today and got a third paw bandaged. Can definitely tell he is frustrated with the situation, but hoping he will be able to have them off in another 2 weeks or so.

  11. Chavli

    Indeed a lot of drama to start 2024! The most heart wrenching is what happened to your boy, Linnaeus! I bet he’ll be getting a lot of extra TLC now. Here is wishing for a speedy recovery.

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