Hurricane-proof your yard

Simple preparations could save thousands in repairs

Keys Sunday ContributorMay 26, 2008 

Keys landscaping experts agree: no matter what the prognosis is for hurricane season, it’s better to be safe than sorry. And that means preparing your yard for the worst.

Kim Gabel is an environmental horticulture agent at the UF/IFAS/Monroe County Extension. She said that now is a good time to examine the trees surrounding your home.

“Look at the whole tree from the crown to the root flare,” she said. “Is the bark sloughing off from the trunk? Are any trees leaning toward your house? Look up in the tree canopy. Do you see any broken branches that have turned brown? If the tree has started to put out new leaves, are the branch tips brown and is the bark separating from the wood? Do any trees have tight V crotches on the main trunk or rubbing branches? Did the tree get uprooted?”

If you answered yes to any of these, this may be a good time to prune, stake or remove the tree, depending on its condition and proximity to nearby “targets.”

If the job is more than you care to tackle yourself, such as a pruning job that would require you to stand on a ladder with a chainsaw, better talk to a professional tree trimmer. Gabel recommends finding an arborist who is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture and locally licensed. Look in the yellow pages or on the ISA Web site (isa-arbor.com) for a listing of certified arborists. Get three bids, so you’ll have a better understanding of the amount of tree work to be done, the job’s cost, the arborist’s knowledge of local ordinances and how the debris will be removed from your property.

One such arborist is Gregory Z. “Greg” Scott, from Dot Palm Landscaping, who said homeowners need to look for tree limbs that are likely to hit power lines or the house. “Dead or damaged tree limbs, coconuts and palm fronds need to be removed in late April or May. It’s best to get it done well in advance. Think of it as a kind of spring cleaning,” he suggests.

“Don’t wait until the last minute. Be sure to give your collection service enough time to pick up the debris. And don’t forget loose yard things like BBQ grills and chaise lounges.”

Preparing for a possible storm surge is another consideration, he said. “Even many salt-tolerant plants can be killed from salt water that is deep enough or lasts long enough. Short of building a berm around your yard or raising your plant beds, a surge is difficult to prepare for, and some plants may have to be replaced after the salty soil has been flushed out with fresh water.”

Your mulch may be carried away by a surge. “Pine bark is the worst. It floats away immediately. Most hardwood mulches are heavier. There are some brands made from manmade materials that are low maintenance.”

Scott said that some gumbo limbo trees, considered to be moderately salt tolerant, were eventually killed by Hurricane Wilma. “The roots died and the trees tried to flower and bear fruit before dying. Then the beetles moved in and finished them off. Salt reverses the flow of water into a tree, drawing it back out. It’s a lot like the effects of fertilizer burn.”

Salt-Tolerant Plants

Franco D’Ascanio, president of D’Asign Source, recommends a good landscape design and the use of native plants that are both wind and salt tolerant as the best defense against hurricane damage. He has rated each plant’s wind tolerance on a scale from 0-5 and salt tolerance on another 0-5 scale.

“The big winners are the ‘perfect 10s,’” he said. Those include palms like the common coconut palm, as well as blue hesper, European fan, wax and princess palms, among others. The top five trees are the silver buttonwood, joewood, aapodilla, ponytail and screw pine.

D’Ascanio said that hurricane pruning is already under way on their properties, and will be ongoing through June and July. He offers some favorite hurricane landscaping tips.

“There is a direct correlation between drought tolerance and salt tolerance,” he said. “We’ve found that plants with silver or blue leaves typically endure salt spray very well.

“Containerized plants establish more quickly than others, making them more durable in a shorter time. Planting buffers of wind-tolerant plants around more delicate plants will help protect them from damage. Plants in groups often survive better.”

Following a storm surge, D’Ascanio said the right kind of irrigation is important.

“We try to save all of the plants,” he said. “Stand them back up, brace them properly in stable, good soil with no air pockets to expose the roots. If the plant is weak, apply fungicide.”

Most Keys gardeners have their own favorite tips for hurricane preparation, and Anne O’Bannon of Key Colony Beach is no different.

“When you finally return to the Keys following a ‘tropical weather incident,’ finding rotting bromeliads is a nasty, smelly surprise,” she said. “Instead, before the storm, pull them up, place them in a box or a bag and get them to higher ground in an inside storage room. They will not suffer as a result of the temporary move and can be replanted easily when conditions allow.”

“Orchids (those that aren’t attached to trees) can also be moved to a storage room. Placing them in boxes or slipping them into plastic bags can reduce the dirt factor. Orchids that are well attached to trees are best left undisturbed. Mine have survived all weather events here for the last 15 years.”

Key West orchid grower Gary Gethen thought he was protecting his orchids from 2005’s Hurricane Wilma by placing them at ground level sheltered from the approaching hurricane-force winds. Alas, no one knew that salt water would flood many areas of the island, killing thousands of beautiful plants on the ground in its path.

Now, Gethen’s advice is to cluster your orchids and hang them high off the ground in a wind-sheltered area. Spray a fungicide on your plants before a hurricane because fungi are spread by rain as well as by wind, and once established can rip through your plants, infecting them all with the speed of wildfire. To further discourage fungal infections after the hurricane, turn fans on your plants to keep the air moving around them.

The late Rodger Keller, a master gardener from the Key West Garden Club, offered some firsthand advice in his paper, “Hurricane Horticulture”:

“Stake all of your plants,” he said. “For trees, use old rubber hosing with steel cable inside. Use cable clamps to fasten the cables to metal pipes driven into the ground.

“Rebar stakes can also be used in a wide triangle around small trees and plants to protect them from winds that could come from any direction.

“Prune back treetops and thick growth. Reduce the height and width of old trees by one-quarter to one-third. Remove crossed branches and establish a balanced branch structure.

He also recommended taking orchids, bromeliads and begonias inside. “Store them up on tables or chairs, but not on the floor or ground,” he said. “Keep them out of the wind. Water them before bringing them inside.”

Keys Sunday contributor Fran Marchbank contributed to this story.

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