This week Western New Yorkers – the lucky ones – experienced only the edge of a hurricane, with high winds and extended rainfall. While local damage was relatively mild, the storm reminded many of us of where we are vulnerable and whether we are prepared for emergencies. It also tested whether our home landscapes will stand up to the challenges ahead.
There are ways to correct landscape flaws that endanger your home and to protect your investment in plants and hardscape. Some problems may require long-term projects or warm-season solutions, but it's always a good time to start planning. Let's evaluate.
*Danger from tall trees: Trees are our most valuable landscape plants, and the grand old trees of our parks and city streets are treasures. But large trees around your home can endanger people and pets, buildings and other property. An old tree should have a checkup periodically. You can learn a lot from arboriculture websites (weknowtrees.com) about indications that a mature tree is damaged, weakening and in danger of blowing over or dropping large limbs, but if you have doubts, have a professional arborist evaluate the tree. A CNLP (Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional) can often advise about which trees appear at risk and need help.
Prevention now is easier than correcting problems later. Don't wound tree roots or trunks – with lawn mowers, weed whackers, vehicles or nails – because wounds weaken the organism. Limbs high above the wounded area won't receive proper nutrients; those will be the branches that weaken, die and drop.
But what if your mature tree is already stressed and dropping branches? In this situation, a thorough pruning to lighten the canopy is the best response. A densely branched tree with a thick canopy is like a sail when strong winds assault it – quick to blow over. The same tree when properly pruned is airy; the wind blows through it – no blow-over. Many landscapers and arborists could show you countless examples of trees that had been well-pruned and survived the 2006 October storm, in comparison to those that became firewood or are skeletal remnants of their former beauty.
Professionals can advise you or correct tree problems even in the winter, so evaluate now and make plans to protect the investment.
*Damage by poor drainage: Greatly underestimated and poorly understood, bad drainage is a common landscape problem. If water has nowhere to go except toward your basement, if your lawn and plants can't take up excess water, if your soil can't absorb and filter water well – then you have a drainage problem. Clues would be puddles that take hours or days to drain, or lawns that stay soggy days after a rainfall. In normal seasons, with well-spaced episodes of rain or melting snow, a poorly drained landscape is tolerable. When the extreme weather patterns happen, that's when landscapes with poor drainage incur damage.
Some landscape or construction professionals may be able to complete drainage projects before the ground is frozen for winter. Your yard may need trenching, pipes, French drains or a drainage basin. A rain garden might also be a great alternative or addition to the landscape plan; ask your landscaper how and where you can solve drainage problems with this nature-friendly approach.
Or you may simply plant water-tolerant, water-absorbing plants, such as willows and shrub dogwoods (among many fine species) in the right locations.
Drainage is fixable. Water damage to the basement or to ?your lovingly planted garden – maybe not.
*Protect the select few: However much we love our gardens, we can't bring our dear perennials, shrubs and trees inside to protect them. Established plants, with good root systems, usually survive high winds, but as long as the soil is unfrozen there is a risk, because roots can pull out of the soggy soil. If you find a perennial or shrub heaving out of the ground, pack the roots with soil or compost and tamp the root ball down firmly. Once the plants are dormant and the ground is frozen, we can usually breathe easier.
Blow-overs aren't the only way that wind damages plants, though. Some plants – notably evergreens – suffer terrible dehydration in winter, made worse if they are hit by hard winds or if they enter the season already dry. Such plants, particularly rhododendrons, Japanese pieris or any recently planted evergreens with small root systems, would benefit from a windbreak, wind screen or cover. The old-fashioned method of wrapping burlap around evergreens can work, but both wind and deer can tear the covers. The newer products called Shrub Coats and Shrub Covers, including related products called wind screens, do a great job of winter protection.
I hope your home and landscape are faring well. Now let's use this lesson and prepare for the storms to come.