JANUARY 6, 1997
Gardening: Healing garden damage from holiday blast of '96
by Mary Robson, WSU Area Extension Agent
By now, the holiday blast of 1996 has melted into flood and soggy ground problems, causing serious and persistent damage to roads, homes, and other buildings. Problems with garden plants may seem minor compared to some of the major personal tragedies many people are facing, but they are real and must be handled.
The triple whammy storm, with deep snow, ice, and more snow, followed by rapid thawing and then rain, has affected many landscapes. Unstable, saturated ground from constant rain makes dealing with the problems more difficult.
Do prune out torn tree limbs if they can be reached, making clean cuts and leaving no "stubs" behind. A "stub" is a protruding chunk of wood that looks like a thumb, with no potential buds on it. Cut back to a growth bud or to a main limb.
Trees may be toppled or leaning. Or large branches may have cracked off from the weight of ice and snow. A tree that's downed or has most of its roots out of the ground must be removed. Tree roots are far more shallow than many gardeners realize. A huge Douglas fir can topple, and the observer realizes that the roots are basically a giant pancake that has simply pulled out of the ground in a circular, fairly shallow shape. Trees are not generally anchored into the ground by deep prongs of "taproots." Trees on slopes or on ground that has been disturbed by construction equipment are more likely to have difficulties. Trees that have been improperly pruned (for instance, topped) or are suffering from disease problems also can go over.
A leaning tree caught in surrounding branches is nicknamed a "widow-maker" by loggers, for excellent reasons. Get professional help to remove toppled or leaning trees.
Occasionally, a smaller tree that has relatively few roots exposed can be righted and stabilized, but this rescue effort is far less common than is the need for removal. To evaluate what the survival possibilities of a tree will be, consult a qualified arborist. Look for those with the initials ISA certified or NAA certified after their names. These initials indicate "International Society of Arboriculture" or "National Arborist Association." Tree care experts with these designations have taken special training in tree care. They can often also help review trees for potential future problems or appraise them for insurance purposes.
If a tree is standing, but has branch damage, it's sometimes a bit easier to evaluate. Look at the main trunk and check the pattern of damage. A tree can die from what's called "girdling," a situation in which the bark all the way around the trunk has been cracked, sliced, or broken open and the living cambium tissue and vascular systems damaged. The tree's ability to move water and nutrients up and down the trunk may be reduced or may cease completely. If too much of the bark has pulled off, the tree may die.
However, if the tree has lost only a few branches and the trunk system is intact, it will probably recover well. Because the late December storm did not include very low temperatures, most trees and shrubs have root systems that were unaffected even if the top structure of the plant shows damage. The plant will send out new shoots and eventually the misshapen areas will fill in. With severely damaged shrubs that have sustained many broken branches, recovery may take two or three years. If the shrub is a prominent landscape feature, the gardener may choose to remove it or transplant it to a less visible location.
When dry weather comes, be sure to keep damaged trees and shrubs provided with regular watering to help them recover. ("Regular" means providing one inch of water a week during dry months.)
The saturated ground now prevalent all over western Washington will prevent most common garden activities. Stay off ground until it dries sufficiently. Walking on, or digging in, saturated ground can lead to compaction and soil structure problems. Wait for planting and transplanting until rain ceases and ground drains somewhat.
Erosion problems from water flow, or standing water where drainage is poor, will show up during and following these storm conditions. Several choices in landscapes can help the landscape drain. Wherever possible, use permeable rather than impermeable surface coverage. For instance, bricks set in sand drain better than mortared or solid surfaces. Paths covered with sawdust or chipped plant material also drain more completely than those covered in concrete. Forest floor surfaces, spongy with years of organic material, obviously absorb rainwater better than do paved surfaces. If gardens and landscapes can provide as much absorbent surface as possible, this can contribute to mitigating the ferocity of surface water runoff during storms. Even something as simple as a 2- to 3-inch mulch over the garden can help.
Severe erosion and drainage problems generally must be corrected by professional landscaping renovations.
In spite of the immediate mess that the garden may show, littered with branches and needles, with breakage and perhaps even the tree loss, landscapes recover surprisingly well. Get professional help if you need it, and try to view plant losses as opportunities to add replacements that may ultimately improve the landscape.
Visit WSU's Agriculture Site on the World-Wide Web at http://www.cahe.wsu.edu.