Lock down your landscape

Gardeners should get in the habit of securing lawns and gardens - before hurricane season.

Published April 17, 2005

The best time to prepare your landscape for a hurricane is before the season begins.

Preventive maintenance, which saves time and money in the long run, is a habit every gardener should practice throughout the year.

Before a storm

-- Any item in your yard or your neighbor's can become a dangerous projectile in high winds. Look around now and make a mental list of what you'd need to bring in: flags, garden hoses, wind chimes, bird feeders, hanging baskets and lawn ornaments. House ornaments that are not secure, such as wreaths or plaques, should also be stored safely.

--Inspect trees for rotten or dead limbs that can break off easily and crash through windows. Cut low-lying limbs using a pruning saw or lopper; be careful not to tear branches. Remove seed pods and old fronds from palms. Hire a professional arborist or a tree service to remove out-of-reach limbs.

"The time to be considering major work certainly isn't two days away from a storm," says Wendy Wilber, a horticulture agent with the Florida Cooperative Extension Service in Gainesville.

--Stake small trees and tall garden plants that could snap in high winds, says Kim Hutton, a botanist at the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens in Tampa. She typically uses three stakes placed a few feet around the root ball and drives them about 8 inches into the soil or deeper, especially in loose, sandy soil. Next, secure the stake to the trunk with hose-covered, heavy-duty wire. It's also a good idea to flag the wire to prevent accidents. Stockpile those supplies now so you're ready. Remember, the damaging No-Name Storm of 1993 arrived unexpectedly in March.

After a storm

Once a storm has passed, here's first aid for your foliage.

--Some fallen and leaning trees can be saved, as long as they can be propped back up, Hutton says. Trim broken branches, set the tree upright and firmly stake for support. Treat the tree as if it were transplanted by providing adequate water in the next six months.

The Florida Extension Service recommends leaving the support stakes and hose-covered wires in place for a year.

--Inspect trees for damage, including broken branches, cracks or splits at the limb-trunk juncture and breakage of the root system. Prune or saw broken branches back to major limbs or the main trunk, always making clean, even cuts. If a crack or split extends into the trunk, the tree could be dangerous and may need to be removed.

--Inspect the root area of trees and shrubs for hollowing of the soil that can occur when plants are blown back and forth during a storm. Add soil and water to eliminate air pockets around roots.

Long-term strategies

You probably don't think about a plant's ability to survive a hurricane when shopping at the nursery, but after last year's active storm season, it's a good idea, say experts, who offer this advice:

--Always buy healthy trees that meet the Florida Department of Agriculture's standards, says Hugh Gramling, executive director of Tampa Bay Wholesale Growers in Seffner, which represents 79 landscape growers in Hillsborough.

There are four grades: Florida Fancy, No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3. "You want a Fancy or a No. 1," says Gramling.

Trees typically aren't labeled, so ask at the nursery and request to speak to a certified horticultural professional if there is one on staff. Don't buy trees with a V at the trunk because that structure will weaken the tree as it grows, he warns. Always choose a tree with a straight, central trunk, with limbs growing perpendicular to the trunk.

--Don't choose trees that won't hold up in a storm, especially if you live in a city where a mature tree will be close to structures. Although it's beautiful, the lavender jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia ), which can grow 40 feet tall and 60 feet wide, has extremely brittle branches that will easily break in the wind. Other poor choices include Carolina laurel cherry (Prunus caroliniana ) and sand pine (Pinus clausa ).

Consider palms instead. Their small canopies and heavy weight make them an excellent choice for wind resistance. (See list of recommended trees.)

--Don't plant trees near power and telephone lines or too close to your house. "One of the first things I tell people when they plant a tree is look up," Wilber said. "Don't plant within 12 feet of your house or any large structure, including a pool."

--If you live near saltwater, shop for salt-tolerant trees, including black olive (Bucida buceras ), cabbage or sabal palm (Sabal palmetto ) and sea grape (coccoloba uvifera ). Most gardening books and identification tags indicate a plant's salt tolerance.

--Maintain good tree canopy health for the life of your tree. Prune so that it retains a central trunk) for strength. Never whack it like a hedge, known as "topping." Instead, selectively prune branches to achieve an even distribution of limbs.

--Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.