A lot of what was overhead is now underfoot — and all over our yards. Hurricane Irma spared South Florida a direct hit, but the storm still took down plenty of trees at attractions like Jungle Island and Monkey Jungle.
Our backyards didn’t escape the onslaught, either — especially if we were a bit too lackadaisical about keeping trees trimmed.
As the cleanup continues across Miami-Dade and Broward and cities start the lengthy process of debris removal, the questions are what to save, how to save it — and what we should plant instead if there’s no salvaging our landscape.
Noris Ledesma, curator of Tropical Fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, says the storm, while not as destructive as Hurricane Andrew in 1992, still caused problems.
“We lost everything that was very tall, doesn’t matter the species,” says Ledesma, who is helping oversee the cleanup at Fairchild — which lost 75 percent of its species to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Fairchild fared better during Irma, director Carl Lewis recently told the Miami Herald, “We did much better than in Andrew, as we didn’t have the same intensity of wind or storm surge as we did then. It’s very messy right now, but it’s mostly debris. The vast majority of our palm trees are looking really good. We had some damage to trees, but our most valuable species are salvageable.”
What got hit hardest? Ficus and tabebuia trees, Ledesma says. Her favorites — the mango trees — also took a beating. But Ledesma is not one to look on the dark side: “I’m rescuing them all,” she says.
Homeowners can also save trees, but acting quickly is key. And if you can’t save them, read further for a few ideas about what to plant instead.
Many downed trees can be righted. Here are some tips on saving them:
▪ Cover the roots to keep them moist until you can work on them.
▪ Prune the root system to get it back in the ground. Dig out soil beneath exposed roots, but don’t break all the roots. “That’s very important,” Ledesma says.
▪ Right the tree, then stake it, keeping the stakes in place for at least six months.
▪ Water every day for two to four weeks (less is OK if it rains). Keep root area moist for several months.
Pruning is key to preserving trees after the storm. You should prune them on a regular basis, too. “Prune your trees properly or the hurricane will do it for you,” Ledesma warns.
▪ Examine trees for injuries and cracks in the trunk and major limbs. Remove the rest of the tree if more than half the canopy is gone or badly damaged.
▪ Prune an equal amount of canopy so the tree doesn’t struggle to keep its leaves hydrated while trying to grow new roots. Ledesma says you can leave 20 to 50 percent of a mango tree’s leaves, and it will bounce back. Avocado trees also respond well to pruning, she says.
▪ Use a chain saw or pruning saw to clean jagged ends, cutting at an angle.
▪ Do not use pruning paint; it seals the fungi inside.
▪ For large broken branches, prune them to where the branch forks if the bark is intact.
▪ If you cut a big branch down to the trunk, save the branch collar (the raised area from which the branch emerges).
▪ Whitewash newly exposed bark to prevent sunburn with a non-oil based latex paint (yes, trees get sunburn).
What you should plant
If you want to try a new sort of landscape, here are some ideas:
▪ Trees: As Ledesma noted, ficus and tabebuia trees are easily felled, so look for something a little more hearty. Poincianas survived Irma with minimal damage, she says — “anything with tiny leaves did well” — but the roots can be an issue if you plant them too close to your home, you can’t grow grass under them and the pods can be a chore to clean up. Ledesma’s suggestion is to plant fruit trees, particularly mango or avocado trees. “They’re a good choice for our backyards,” she says. “They’re well adapted to our conditions, even hurricanes.”
One thing to remember if you’re planting a new tree: start with a small tree, not a big one, Ledesma advises. Often when amateur landscapers plant a big tree they don’t dig a hole big enough for the root system because it’s expensive and time-consuming. “We’re impatient by nature as humans,” she says. “We want the tree already mature. But those trees are in a container for too long, the root system suffers. You can never recover. It’s always better to start by planting a small tree and develop a perfect root system.”
▪ A butterfly garden: Plants that thrive in the sunlight work best: scarlet milkweed (it draws monarch, soldier and queen butterflies) and firebush (its tubular red flowers draw zebra longwings). Giant milkweed, equally drought resistant, is also a good choice. You can also visit Fairchild’s website for more ideas on what to plant to lure butterflies to your yard.
▪ Shrubs: Surround your butterfly garden with shrubs to protect butterflies from the wind (you can also leave them a saucer of wet sand — they like to drink water, too). You can choose flowering plants such as yellow-flowing necklace pod or white and fragrant West Indian lilac, although spicewood, wax myrtle, cocoplum and Spanish stopper work well, too.