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Cold's toll apparent across Western Pa. in damaged plants, cracked walls

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 8:39 p.m.

Homeowners finally are getting to deal with the latest — and they hope the last — chapter in the grim novel that was the winter.

While they are freed from shoveling and dangers of driving, residents still are dealing with winter-related tasks. They are fixing retaining walls, driveways and patios. They are removing trees and plants that were killed by the cold or trying to nurse them back to health.

“It was just very cold, very dry,” said Philip Bauerle, interim master gardener coordinator for the Penn State Extension Service of Allegheny County. “When that happens, the air gets very dry and plants cannot get enough water.”

Garden professionals are fairly confident the plants can be nursed back to health, though they note the work will be frustrating.

“I really would be against taking out anything that has a good history in the past,” said Sandy Asturi of Asturi Contracting in Monroeville.

Broad-leafed evergreens such as the boxwood, holly, rhododendron and mountain laurel were among the cold's victims because of their broader leaves.

But the problem goes deeper than the leaves.

Asturi said her company planted some arborvitae at an area business in October. She said they believed — from experience — the plants would get a chance to root.

“But it started to get cold, and we didn't know it was going to stay as cold as it did,” she said. “If they get a chance to root, they are all right.”

The steady cold means plants that should be growing haven't advanced as far as they could.

“We're in May and we're only now getting away from frozen nights,” she said.

The wind took down branches and trees, said Tom Leo of Leo's Landscaping in Glenshaw. He said he is doing about 20 percent more work for clients, replanting many plants and shrubs that were affected by the cold.

Heavy snow sometimes can insulate plants, acting almost as a wrap. This winter, though, there were few days of heavy snow, and plants were exposed to the dry air.

Bauerle said plants near driveways also were hurt by the overuse of road salt.

“People got so tired of (the cold), they would just go out there and throw that salt everywhere,” he said.

Hungry deer eager to nourish themselves added to the plants' problems.

“American holly is usually pretty deer-proof,” Asturi said. “But not this year.”

Even plants that often are deer favorites such as arborvitae were eaten more often this winter, leading to the need for more landscaping this spring.

Cold dirt has caused a range of problems. Jeff Blunkowsy of Pittsburgh Stone and Waterscapes in Bethel Park said he is dealing with a number of cracked and fallen walls, ruptured concrete and pavers that need to be reset.

All of those problems, he said, are because of freeze-thaw cycles in the ground that cause the earth to move.

Work on some of the problems is starting late because the ground stayed cold so long it was impossible to start digging, said Ryan Longaway of Asturi. Right now, he said, his company is splitting work between hard-surface repairs and garden jobs, even if it seems more the time of year for the latter.

He said wall repairs often are necessitated because the wall was built with an emphasis on saving money rather than building a strong structure.

Walls that are built without proper reinforcement are likely to cause trouble when the ground starts shifting in freeze-thaw cycles, he said. Even if repairs are possible, he said, they will be costly because of the stacking work.

Though the freeze-thaw ground shifts caused problems in walls and surfaces above ground, Brian Wolfgang of the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center in State College, Centre County, said most homeowners need not worry about damage to their home's foundation.

The housing systems specialist said most surface projects are built to meet municipal codes that take them down 36 inches, a depth that puts them right at the frost line.

Below that, the earth is changed little, which means “exterior walls are not subject to cracking and heaving.”

Of course, he said, soil types, drainage, nearness to bodies of water, amount of moisture entering the soil all can change a home's relative dryness.

“You just don't plan for the thousand-year storm,” he said.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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