The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall – Hurricanes and the Home Garden

Sunday, October 12, 2014

BY RICHARD J. CAMPBELL

FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN

As published in the Miami Herald

Each year South Florida braces for the “big one”. Churning its way across the Tropical Atlantic, a major hurricane exacts a toll on life and property like few other natural disasters can do. Damage to the home landscape can be considerable and long lasting, even with a smaller category 1 or 2 storm. And, for many of us, the dread associated with an approaching storm revolves around fears over the loss of our landscape and not the loss of life.                                    

Few who lived through the fury and aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 will forget the impact that this event had upon their lives and their landscapes, forever book-marking time as pre- and post-Andrew. Specific actions are needed to minimize damage to the home landscape and to protect our investment, both monetary and emotional. The selection of the proper plant, the correct size and the proper placement are fundamental. Size control, canopy thinning and timely decision making are keys to success. Preparations must be done prior to the approach of a storm and are most effective if they have been practiced for a number of years.  Home landscapes without proper pruning for size control and canopy management are a disaster waiting to happen. One thing is for sure, there will be another hurricane and our landscapes will pay the price if we are unprepared. 

First one must consider the size of the tree purchased and planted in the home landscape. Many cannot avoid the temptation to purchase large landscape trees - oaks, palms, buttonwoods and gumbo limbos to name a few. The school of thought behind this decision is the purchase of an instant landscape. Size can provide this, but time is the better investment. For the long term there are serious drawbacks to this thinking. A large tree planted in the landscape will take several years to properly establish. In these years the canopy of the tree will grow large, but the root system will provide adequate anchorage. When a storm comes, even a minor one, these trees will blow down. This is a phenomenon played out over and over in the last 17 years since Hurricane Andrew struck <st1:place w:st="on">South Florida.

A healthy, small (2 to 4 gal container) tree is the proper choice when considering hurricanes. Such a tree will establish quicker and be more resistant to toppling than the large tree. Small trees will develop quickly in South Florida due to our long growing season. The need to plant large trees comes from an impatience that can cost dearly in the long run. When a tree blows down, the roots are ripped and torn and even if promptly reset the tree has been severely damaged. Years of patient pruning will be needed to reduce the canopy size to avoid the tree falling down again with even a modest wind. Many trees never recover and have to be removed. Most toppled trees are best considered temporary, awaiting replacement by a healthy new replant.

Certain plants will suffer more at the hands of storms. Some examples include banana, papaya and yellow tabebuia. These plants will blow down at the slightest provocation, and should be considered expendable in the aftermath of a storm. The fate of other plants in the home garden depends greatly on the storm’s wind speed, the amount of rainfall and the preparation that one performed prior to arrival of the hurricane. Hurricanes soften the ground and allow trees to topple more easily and those with little rain can cause excessive leaf loss due to salt spray on the hurricane-force gusts. Flying debris often inflict considerable damage on the trunks of trees and can cause complete girdling in many cases.

Smaller and younger trees will survive a storm better than older and larger trees. This basic rule should always be remembered when preparing the home garden for storm season. A large, perfect canopy on a landscape tree is a thing of beauty. Remember, however, that the larger they are, the harder they fall. Size control pruning should be practiced on the fruit trees in the home garden. This will allow them to withstand hurricane force winds with defoliation and some limb breakage. Toppling is a more severe and long term problem, for the tree that has fallen over and is righted will require years of remedial pruning to recover.

For the primary canopy trees within our landscapes like the live oak, canopy thinning will also help the tree to withstand a storm. Canopy thinning allows the wind to pass through the canopy without toppling the tree. Canopy thinning is generally best left to a reputable certified arborist. The certified arborist will thin the canopy, remove weak branches and generally safeguard the health and survival of a tree. Experience with category 4 or 5 hurricanes has shown us; however, that canopy thinning will not safeguard the largest of trees against toppling. In the case of the mega storm only trees pruned for size control for a number of years will survive without toppling.

Hurricanes are a reality for South Florida. Minimizing the effects of hurricanes on South Florida landscapes should be a priority for us all. A storm prepared home landscape will not erase the anxiety and stress of tropical cyclones, but it might make it bearable.