It’s that time of year when hurricanes are on the minds of everyone living in southern coastal areas. While taking care of your garden isn’t a top priority when a strong storm is bearing down, there are things you can do to protect your home and garden before a hurricane hits.

Co-dominant trunks

Large trees with multiple trunks, known as codominant stems, are at risk for splitting during storms and causing property damage.

Photo Credit: Carol Peterson

Over-pruned palm

This cabbage palm has been seriously over-pruned, which can make the trunk more susceptible to breaking in a hurricane.

Photo Credit: Carol Peterson

Tipped pot

Potted plants that are too large to move into a shelter should be laid down and secured by tying them and/or wedging blocks around the pot.

Photo Credit: Carol Peterson

Safeguarding your garden from strong storms means taking both long-term and last-minute preparations. Long-term preparations are actually a combination of common sense and good tree care. Much of the hurricane damage to homes is caused by trees that either break apart or are uprooted. If you live in an area prone to hurricanes, make sure the trees you plant are species that have proved themselves wind-resistant, like live oak, magnolia and bald cypress. These selections are native to – and grow well in – the southeastern US.

Where you plant your trees is important, too. Don’t plant large ones too close to buildings, or under or near power lines. And be sure to keep an eye on them as they grow. When it comes to young trees, you’re in a good position to ensure that they’re well-maintained and that they develop good structure with the best possible wind resistance.

Regularly inspect any mature or over-mature trees on your property for structural weaknesses, general health and vigor. Large, mature trees – especially ones that are diseased or weak – have great potential to cause damage during a hurricane or tropical storm.

While only a certified arborist can accurately assess the hazardous potential of your trees, there are a few obvious defects anyone can spot that need attention before a storm hits:

  1. Codominant stems. These occur when a tree’s been topped or if it’s been improperly trained while it was young. Instead of having one strong, central trunk, the tree has two or more. The problem with codominant stems is that they’re not strongly attached to each other in the way that a branch is normally strongly attached to a tree trunk. The bark of each codominant stem becomes embedded between the stems, preventing any attachment between the two trunks. A tree with codominant stems – especially if the stems originate in the lower half of the tree – is at risk for splitting in windy, rainy weather. You can easily correct codominant stems on a young tree by cutting back all but one stem. A large tree with codominant stems, however, is a job for an arborist to assess and correct, if possible.
  2. Overly thick canopy. If you have your tree canopies thinned from time to time, wind will be able to pass through the boughs without exerting so much force as to break branches or uproot the tree. Thinning involves removing relatively small branches (one-half to 1 inch in diameter) from the outer portion of the crown to allow better air movement. The best candidates for canopy trimming are trees that cast such a dense shade that it’s difficult to grow plants underneath them. Consult a certified arborist to trim any tree canopy properly.
  3. Root problems. A tree with diseased roots can easily topple in high winds. Since it’s not possible to see the root system, the best way to tell if a tree’s got problems is by observing its general health and soil conditions, as well as keeping track of its history. A tree with root rot has fewer leaves than normal. Additionally, mushrooms – especially yellowish-brown ones with thin stems and an unpleasant odor – may grow during rainy weather. Mature trees that’ve been on your property since before your house was built are prime candidates for root rot.

Soils can also contribute to root problems. The root systems of trees growing on thin, rocky soil may tend to peel away from the rock and allow the tree to topple in high winds. Very wet soils often produce tree roots just in the top few inches of the soil, too, making them more susceptible to falling over in windstorms. An arborist can help you decide if any measures should be taken to secure your trees.

One practice that had been popular to protect palm trees in a storm was hurricane-cutting. This involved pruning palms severely at the beginning of each hurricane season. The theory was that if leaves were cut out of the palms, there would be less wind resistance and less damage to the tree (or caused by the tree) during a storm.

Unfortunately, hurricane-cutting doesn’t work, and this practice is now discredited – and even illegal in at least one Florida county. The problem with hurricane cutting was that the persistent over-pruning often led to a constriction of the trunk, causing it to break in a storm. Thankfully, palms as a group are quite tolerant of high winds and really don’t need any pruning other than the removal of dead leaves. (Do feel free to cut off coconuts or other seed and flower stalks as a course of regular maintenance.)

Last-minute Preparations

In addition to these long-term hurricane preparations, there are a few last-minute things you can do around your home and garden to protect them from these storms. When you’re boarding your home’s windows, for example, look around your yard for any and all loose, lightweight objects that are small enough to be brought inside. And if you’ve got a swimming pool, toss large objects like lawn furniture into it. The water will keep them from blowing about your yard and damaging it.

Since we don’t have a pool or garage at our house, we simply tie our patio furniture and barbecue to some of the sturdy trees in our yard. (It’s very important to protect your barbecue from harm, since you may need it for cooking if the electricity shuts off for an extended period after the storm.) Also be sure to turn any outdoor tables upside down so the wind can’t catch the broad upper surfaces.

For the most part, the flowers and shrubs planted in your yard won’t require any storm preparation, but bear in mind that they might need some pruning, staking or even replanting afterward. Smaller potted plants, including hanging ones, should be brought inside.

If you’ve got large potted palms or trees, lay them on their sides with the tops of the trees pointing away from the expected direction of the strongest winds. Don’t wrap them in tarp to keep them safe because the wrapping can act like a sail and whip the plants around. Protect your expensive, fragile pots by wrapping cushioning material around them. Use bricks or wooden blocks to bolster the pots so they don’t roll or break or damage other plants. If you don’t have bricks, consider tying pots down.

While there isn’t much you can do about hurricane season, there’s plenty you can do to protect your landscape from it. Be sure to plant the right trees and take care of them well so they’re not prone to breakage during a storm. And when a hurricane is likely to strike, save what you can by bringing it indoors or tipping it over safely. But most importantly, be sure to safeguard yourself and your family. After all, a home and yard can be replaced – a life can’t.