Keep it green – storm damage control for plants

Sandy was destructive in several ways. Shore erosion was especially pronounced, but trees and plants suffered too, as in this photo, which shows a tree fallen near the Scottish Bakehouse. — File photo by Adrianne Ryan

Fortunately, the recent hurricane had limited impact on the Vineyard community, but Sandy and previous big storms have left indelible marks on our landscape. Downed trees and wind and salt-scorched plants are some of the inevitable casualties of seaside hurricanes and northeasters. However, there are both preventative and corrective measures that can be taken by homeowners to mitigate the destructive effects of ocean storms.

Damaging salt spray is a particular threat to any Island environment. Paul Mahoney, owner of Jardin Mahoney, has watched the devastating effects of local wind storms, and he notes that even minor storms can be lethal to plants. “If we get any kind of wind storm that might pick up salt spray you can have a lot of damage,” he said.

Mr. Mahoney observed limited post-Sandy damage to local foliage, “I haven’t seen a lot of salt damage because we did get a pretty good soaking rain after the wind died down,” he said. However, he advises, “If we don’t have enough rain, get out as soon as possible afterward to wash everything off.”

Evergreens are particularly vulnerable. “Deciduous trees that are going to lose their leaves are usually just fine,” Mr. Mahoney said, “People forget about the needle evergreens. They can show a lot of damage and not recover for a while.”

Water can be used in prevention as well as damage control, according to Mr. Mahoney, who noted that a great deal of storm damage is due to the drying effects of wind, even when there is accompanying rain.

“One of the best things you can do before a storm is make sure plants are well watered,” he said, “Most of the damage that can be alleviated is either from drying out or salt damage. Provide plenty of water well before a storm even if they’re predicting rain so that plants have time to take it up.”

Dehydration can also be a problem during the winter months, and many people are unaware of this danger, according to Mr. Mahoney. “Ninety percent of the time, plants get killed in the winter because we have warm, dry spells and big fluctuations in temperature,” he said, “If we go through a period when it warms up significantly or it’s windy, the plants are pulling more moisture up from the roots and they’ve got nothing. If you get into a cycle where it starts to warm up, especially if there’s wind, water everything.” This is especially important with evergreens and new plantings, he added.

The nature of the Island’s native vegetation has helped it to survive seaside storms. John Hoff, of Oakleaf Landscape and Middletown Nursery recommends that we follow Mother Nature’s example in designing our own landscaping. “I’m a big believer in native plants,” he said, “things that thrive in dune areas.”

“We’ve been lucky,” Mr. Hoff said, noting the damage sustained along the Jersey Shore, “We’re conditioned to withstand these northeasters and so are the plants we ought to be planting.” Among other things, he recommends varieties of binding grasses and other plants that aid in erosion control. Bayberries are a favorite choice of Mr. Hoff’s, as are other common Vineyard plants like rosa rugosa (beach roses), ragweed, artemesia varieties such as Dusty Miller, and seaside goldenrod.

Ornamental grass varieties that grow naturally on the Vineyard include switchgrass — common to local fields and wetlands — and beach grass, which spreads quickly. All of the above can be introduced easily into private landscapes, according to Mr. Hoff, but he cautions that any plantings in fragile and protected areas must be approved by the Conservation Committee.

As for pre-storm measures, Mr. Hoff has some suggestions for homeowners. “Check on any new plants,” he said, “Make sure trees are cabled if they’re young. Determine if the root balls are sufficient. With really tall trees with huge canopies we can stake them to give them additional support.” He added that he tracks storms diligently.

Container plants should be protected and ideally stowed away under overhangs or in basements to prevent leaf damage. “Strong winds will age these perennials really quickly,” Mr. Hoff said.

Homeowners in low-lying areas have their own set of concerns. “Leaves will choke up a surface drain,” Mr. Hoff said. “Make sure drains and gutters are kept clear and make sure drainage is working.”

Keeping up with leaf removal can also help. “The threat of storms is a good argument for keeping on top of raking and not letting it go into late November and December,” he said. “In low lying areas you might want to tackle it in phases.” Mr. Hoff points out another good reason to take care of leaves now, rather than waiting until the trees are completely denuded. “Once they [leaves] freeze up, they’re harder to deal with.”

Now is the time to prepare both for future storms and what, according to some predictions, will be a particularly harsh winter.