Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener

by Ginny Stibolt

As Floridians know, a direct hit by a strong hurricane can cause injury, loss of life, and millions of dollars in damage.   There are no guarantees and no landscape can be made totally storm proof, but you can take steps to modify your landscape to reduce your damage. Hurricane season starts in June, so now's the time to prepare.

Hurricanes cause millions of dollars in damage.  Photo by StiboltThe wet area around this tree weakened its root system so that a relatively mild hurricane tipped it over. The owners of this lot were fortunate that the tree did little damage.  >>

Hurricane-scaping is three-pronged: 1) stormwater management; 2) ongoing maintenance of trees and landscape; and 3) stormwise tree selection and proper planting. Then as a storm approaches you need a plan of action for last-minute preparations.

Stormwater management

Observe where rainwater collects on your property after a heavy rain. If puddles of water remain around bases of trees for more than a day, those trees may be more vulnerable to uprooting in a tropical storm. The exception would be wind-tolerant, wetland-adapted trees such as bald or pond cypress, dahoon holly, sweet bay magnolia, or water tupelo.

To drain the water away from vulnerable trees, create a series of swales or French drains to carry surplus water away from buildings and away from the trees near buildings to a rain garden, bog area, or pond. Take care not to cut the roots of the trees you're trying to preserve. This is not flood control, but creating a space where excess stormwater can collect and percolate safely into the ground is one way to reduce the likelihood of uprooted trees and to lessen damage to building foundations. If you have a big problem, you will save time and money in the long run by hiring an engineer or landscape architect to help you come up with and implement a viable plan. 

If drainage is not practical and the wet area is not close to your house, remove and replace those vulnerable trees with an assortment of wind-tolerant, wetland-adapted trees, along with shrubs adapted to wetlands such as buttonbush, inkberry, and palmettos.

Ongoing maintenance of trees 

Prudent, ongoing maintenance of your landscape trees, especially when they are close to buildings or vehicles, consists of thinning their crowns, protecting their trunks, and trimming out diseased and dead wood, coconuts, or other parts that could become missiles in a storm. You may wish to call in a certified arborist now, before he's busy with hurricane damage to identify and evaluate your trees. He should come up with a comprehensive, multi-year plan for your landscape to reduce damage as much as possible. He may recommend removal of trees with restricted or damaged root systems or weakened trees that could inflict major damage to buildings or vehicles.

Palms with injuries at the base are more likely to drop in a high wind; they cannot heal a gouge. Each year, remove only the dead fronds, old flower stalks, and fruits, especially coconuts--they make it top-heavy and could become missiles in a high wind. Don't prune back any green fronds, even if they droop, because palms have so few leaves that they need them all to maintain vigor. 

Plant for wind resistance

Plant any new trees in groupings or groves with five or more trees surrounded by shrubs. If you have existing stand-alone trees in your landscape, remove the turf around them and replace it with an assortment of trees and shrubs being careful not to damage any of the major tree roots as you plant them. Mulch the whole area with chipped wood or other organic mulch. Choose wind-resistant trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers or ones that will readily grow back if they are knocked down or broken off during a storm. While smaller plants don't cause the damage that trees do, not having to replace them after a storm saves time and money. In coastal areas, consider using salt-tolerant plants, even if salt spray is not a daily problem. 

Plan for the eventual size of trees--both the crown and root system--in your placement. Smaller, wind-resistant trees are useful in the landscape when planted close enough to buildings to shade all but the north-facing walls. You want them to help reduce your air-conditioning needs, but not to become so large that they could cause damage. Choose smaller trees for street trees as well, because they won't outgrow the limited space between the street and sidewalk. Provide plenty of room for larger trees, such as live oaks, in the landscape so their root systems can spread out enough to support their large crowns. 

When planting new container-grown trees, use no amendments in the planting hole, rinse all the soil from the trees' roots, spread out the roots, irrigate well until established. After that you could use a topdressing of compost at the dripline and beyond to encourage the roots to grow outward. A well-planted tree will have wide-spreading roots, which will make it more wind tolerant. For more details see my article, Trees and shrubs: the "bones" of your landscape.

Develop a pre-storm plan for your landscape

These days, we normally have fair warning of approaching storms, but make a list to check off as you're preparing for the storm. The list should include items such as putting away container plants, lawn ornaments, outside furniture, wind chimes, or other items that could blow away or tip over. If a tall, containerized plant is too heavy to move easily, lay it down, and strap or tie it in place--don't leave a plant like this for more than a day or two, or it will start to grow vertically. You may want to un-stake newly planted trees and shrubs before a storm and just let them blow over. You'll have to replant and re-stake them afterward, but this is better than letting the high winds break them off at the staking point. 

Be careful about hiring guys that come to your door with chainsaws before a storm. If you do hire them, have them cut only dead palm fronds, coconuts, or deadwood in your shade trees and have them either shred or haul the waste away. You don't want those branches or fronds lying around to become airborne in the storm. 

If you'll be out of town during peak hurricane season (June through October), it's a good idea to make your landscape storm-ready just in case. Then take a deep breath and hope for the best.


There is a whole chapter on this topic in my book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida"
Use the International Society of Arboriculture's website to search for a certified arborist near you:
The website for the Association of Florida Native Nurseries provides general information on native plants and has a locator for local member nurseries:

Ginny Stibolt is a life-long gardener, a botanist, a naturalist, and a garden writer. You may contact her or read more of her articles posted on her website:

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Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener