With the start of storm season, arborist Bob Brennan has some unexpected advice: “If someone comes to you and says, ‘Let me hurricane-trim your trees,’ send them away.”
“Most of the so-called arborists are not knowledgeable in tree growth or structure,” he says. “They do an enormous amount of damage until the first customer gets caught by the municipality.”
Brennan is talking about the illegal practice of hat-racking — cutting all the branches back severely instead of properly thinning out selected branches to allow light into the tree. Hat-racking weakens the tree. When new growth comes out, the tree is even denser and more prone to toppling over.
“In almost all municipalities and in Miami-Dade County it’s against the ordinance,” says Brennan, arborist for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
“Proper pruning is proper pruning 100 percent of the time,” Brennan says. A tree does need to be pruned, but “for old trees, generally 10 to 15 percent is a lot of the canopy to prune.”
After pruning, the tree’s canopy should be evenly distributed. The idea is to thin the outer canopy so that air and light can reach the crown, allowing it to grow stronger. Brennan says two-thirds of the pruning should be done in the upper canopy.
You do not want to hack out the interior branches. “Cutting all the growth out of the center is lion-tailing, not trimming. Like a lion’s tail, all the weight is left on the end with no branches along the limb to dampen the wind’s efforts to break the tree,” Brennan says. “If there are no green branches on the inside of the tree, there’s no place for the tree to recover,” Brennan says.
In late 2013, Broward County strengthened its ordinance, subjecting tree-trimmers who commit “tree abuse” such as hat-racking and lion-tailing to fines and loss of their licenses.
Palm trees need only to have their dead fronds removed. Green fronds produce nutrition that the tree needs.
When a hurricane is forecast, don’t do any trimming. You will just create dangerous projectiles. Be sure to remove coconuts, seed pods and brown fronds from palms and pick any fruit. Cut back vines on fences so they don’t pull the structure over in high winds. Mowing the grass will make clearing debris easier afterward.
Bring in potted plants and lawn chairs. If you lack space, lay plants on their side. You can stake small trees by driving rebar, wood or plastic stakes at least eight inches into the ground and attaching them to the tree with rope or soft plastic bands.
After the storm passes, time can be a great healer for your landscape. Trees that lost all their leaves usually are not dead.
As for lawns, Anh Ton, director of highway and bridge maintenance with the Broward County Public Works Department, says Bahia grass is very resilient, but if you have St. Augustine, “it will wither after about a week with debris sitting on it.”
If the landscape is subjected to salt spray, hose it down with fresh water as soon as possible. Ton says the Florida native trees that Broward County plants do very well, require little water and are salt-tolerant.
Broken branches should be cut back cleanly to where there is clear wood. You can raise downed trees if they were newly planted or have a trunk diameter smaller than four inches. For larger trees, consult a tree service.
To replant, enlarge the hole, trim the roots, stand the tree back up and fill the hole with the original soil, tamping it down to remove air pockets. Stake the tree for a year and water it every other day for at least two weeks.
“Palms you can stand up almost always. If you have a palm that’s 75 years old, which is about its lifespan, it may not be worth it,” Brennan says.
If you need new plants, consider “Florida Friendly” landscaping.
And once the storm passes, stay on the alert until hurricane season ends Nov. 30.
Ton recalls working seven days a week to clean up the roadways during the 2005 storm season. “In October of 2005, thinking that the chance of a hurricane was low, I spent a couple of weekends installing a swing set for my children. The following weekend, we watched Wilma take it off the ground and send it into our lake. We lost the swing set but had a good laugh.”