5 Natural Disasters and How to Rescue Your Garden

You can’t prevent a natural disaster, but you can take steps to protect your garden and even rehab it once damage is done.

by Bob Dailey
PHOTO: Tom Gill/Flickr

Approximately half the people in the U.S. live within 60 miles of the coast and are vulnerable to storms, floods and other natural disasters, creating untold destruction to lives and property. Vegetable gardens, with their crops of tender annuals, can be particularly susceptible to a storm. Although gardeners cannot prevent all damage, there are measures that any gardener can take to minimize harm.

1. Hurricanes and High Winds

Hurricane season takes place between June 1 and Nov. 30, though a few have occurred outside this period. Since 1851, about 250 Atlantic storms with wind speeds greater than 74 mph have hit either the Atlantic or Gulf coasts, resulting in inestimable costs in damages. Five storms have reached Category 5, reserved for storms with sustained winds greater than 157 mph.

Vegetables, fruit and nut trees, and fruiting vines are some of the first victims of hurricanes. Wind averaging 100 mph can shred and uproot plants. Accompanying pelting rain can shred leaves and stems. Salt water, whipped up from raging seas and carried up into the storm clouds can linger in the soil and kill plants after the storm has passed. Flooding can cause fruits and vegetables to become contaminated with harmful bacteria, making them unfit for human consumption.

However, modern weather forecasting makes it possible for gardeners to protect and salvage some of the garden. Here are some ways you can protect your garden from hurricane damage:

  1. Move any item that can become a projectile in high winds inside. This includes all pots, bird feeders and garden tools.
  2. Harvest all the fruit and vegetables that you can. Green tomatoes with a hint of blush will ripen indoors and green tomatoes without blush can be made into fried green tomatoes or relish.
  3. Stake tomatoes and other taller plants, driving the stakes deeply (at least 1 foot) into the ground. Remember, in 150 mph winds, anything that comes loose becomes a projectile, and can cause serious damage and injuries.
  4. Inspect fruit trees, especially the root balls. If you determine the root ball might be dislodged (as happens sometimes with newly planted trees), stake the tree with guywires.
  5. When the storm has passed and it’s safe to venture out, inspect your plants. Look for broken stems and branches. Cut the damaged parts cleanly from the plant using sharp, sterilized pruners or scissors. (Alcohol or bleach works well for sterilization.) Deposit the cut remnants in the compost pile. There will probably be shredded leaves, as well. Cut the most damaged from the plant and throw them in the compost; however, because plants need leaves to photosynthesize, don’t cut leaves that simply have holes in them or are only partially damaged.
  6. Remember that there will probably be a lot of salt in the soil around your plants. Even though some vegetables and fruits might be salt tolerant, it is best to flush the soil well with fresh water.

2. Flooding

Flooding can leave behind chemical contamination and disease-causing organisms, which pose the greatest risk to gardeners. It can also cause soil erosion, unwanted silt deposits and damage to plants. Floods bring in waste. Sewage; animal feces; contamination from animal corpses; living organisms, such as E. coli, parasitic worms and inorganic compounds; and heavy metals, such as petroleum products, insecticides and herbicides, can all be carried by flood waters.

  1. Gardeners should consider vegetables contaminated by flood waters as lost. Do not eat, cook, can, preserve or freeze these products. Pull the plants out and discard. Do not compost them. On the other hand, fruit from trees and other perennials should be safe to eat the following season.
  2. Wear gloves and boots when working in a flooded garden area. Disinfect these articles, as well as garden tools. Use the tried and true “one part bleach, nine parts water” solution to disinfect. Wash hands and any other areas that have come in direct contact with flooded areas.
  3. When flood waters recede, remove and replace all the soil in the garden. Initially locating your garden in raised beds make this process much easier.
  4. It’s also best to get rid of your compost heap. Unless a compost heap is very large (like a windrow), it won’t get hot enough to kill all pathogens that are probably present in the compost after a flood. Even if all pathogens are eliminated, inorganic compounds still pose a significant risk.

3. Tornadoes

Unfortunately, there’s little a gardener can do to save plants when 200-plus mph winds are barreling your way. In fact, in the face of a tornado, the first and foremost thing on your mind should be getting to a storm cellar or some other place of safety.

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Whether or not your garden will be missed by a tornado is a matter of pure chance. If it does happen to hit your garden, you can always replant if it’s early enough in the season.

For those who live in tornado-prone areas, minimize the number of pots and other garden items that can become missiles if a tornado strikes, and keep tools securely stored indoors.

4. Hailstorms

Hail can literally shred plants apart.

Many gardeners use row coverings over their plants, supported by hoops that create a tent. While a row cover will not offer 100-percent protection from hail, it can minimize the damage. Row covers also protect plants from frost and freeze damage and are an organic insect-pest barrier. However, hail is oftentimes a precursor to a tornado. In tornado-prone areas take that into consideration when putting up garden structures of any type.

5. Earthquakes

In the wake of an earthquake, it would seem that vegetable gardens would be the last thing on a person’s mind. Citizens are more concerned about navigating through collapsed infrastructure, health and safety issues, and providing for immediate food and water requirements.

Gardens tend to be neglected after an earthquake, exactly when they should become more important. If there’s a failure in infrastructure and rescue doesn’t arrive soon enough, vegetable gardening might provide the only source for safe and nutritious food. Even after infrastructure has been restored and food supplies become available, fresh produce might still be difficult to come by. A healthy garden, maintained with good organic practices, has the potential to be quite significant after an earthquake.

To ensure that stability of your garden, build raised beds in earthquake-prone areas. Better still, grow part of your garden in containers. Containers can be moved away from overhead dangers, areas in danger of flooding, or nearer to sources of water.  They can also be taken with you in case of evacuation

Plant First Aid

After any weather event except flooding, apply first-aid to the garden.

  • Trim off and compost broken stems and plants that have been damaged beyond repair.
  • Because plants need their leaves to produce food, leave slightly damaged leaves on salvageable plants. You can always remove them later.
  • Add a good soil mixture to areas where erosion occurred.
  • Heavy rains leach nutrients from the soil. Replenish those nutrients by adding organic compost and a slow-release organic fertilizer. Work them into the soil.
  • If you have a raised-bed garden, repair any damages to the sides.
  • If it’s still early enough in the season, replant any vegetables that have been destroyed.

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