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Landscape Flood Recovery: Steps to Consider

Swamped landscapes may recover once the water subsides.

With much of the Eastern Seaboard assessing damage today from Hurricane Sandy, first thoughts turn to loved ones and basements. Then, if everyone’s healthy and your stuff is dry, you dare to peak outside.

“Returning to a flooded site can be quite devastating. Flood damage to your home or office maybe quite extensive and overwhelming,” writes Charlene LeBleu from the University of Auburn in her blog post. “What about your landscape and garden? Your first impulse may be to pull all the plants out and start over. But wait! Experience has shown that your landscape may at least partially recover.”

That last line holds out a lot of hope for many plants. What isn’t immediately swept away, drowned, or overwhelmed by the salt damage may actually emerge stronger than ever in the future. Seawater contains all 90 basic minerals on the periodic table of elements and some studies have shown soil to be more fertile than ever in the years after a thorough flooding.

Here are a few thoughts to consider before you rush out to replace everything:

HURRY UP AND WAIT — Given the time of year, it’s probably going to be difficult to tell if plants are dead or alive. Even if they’re defoliated (and not meant to be in late October), wait until spring to see if they bud out again. Chances are if they’re still rooted, they will live.

Fallen trees can “spring back” if not cut properly by someone skilled with a chainsaw.

SAFETY FIRST — Downed limbs and fallen trees are obvious choices for cleanups. And even if you own a chainsaw, make sure you’re really skilled enough to deal with the job at hand. Fallen trees that are still connected to their root systems may have tremendous pent-up torque in the trunk; when you cut into these trees they can last back abruptly and cause significant injury or further damage to objects in the surrounding area — including you and your family.

Also spend some time looking overhead. Are there any broken limbs still suspended in trees? Any downed wires? And look at the ground, too. Are there recently planted trees and shrubs that have been uprooted, but could still potentially be saved?

Check to see if yours or any local sewer systems were compromised and whether or not that could have impacted your landscape. It may very well smell that way, but the foul odor could just be the anaerobic conditions caused by lack of oxygen in the soil. If a sewer leak did wind up on your property, you may need to call for a professional cleaning service — or at the very least protect yourself with the proper gloves, boots and other clothing as you clean up the mess yourself.

It may sound obvious . . . but don’t even try to eat any fruits and vegetables that might possibly have been touched by an overflown sewer.

PULL OFF THE BLANKET — Not far from where I live, on the beach where my children swam just last weekend, the sand has washed up onto the road and the surrounding landscapes in that neighborhood (see below). If you’re in this predicament, and your other safety priorities have been handled, begin the process of removing any excess soil, sand or debris away from the plants as soon as you can walk in the landscape without sinking into the mud. Just because they’ve been covered for a day or three doesn’t mean they’ll die. But plants covered for much longer than a few days won’t have much chance for recovery. They need to breathe just like we do.

If the plant is mostly uncovered, but the foliage is still coated with sand or soil, wait a few days then spray this off with water. A light spray, as opposed to a power wash, is recommended. Some folks recommend a light soap solution, but I’d try to rinse off the plants without the soap if possible.

LET IT LIE AND DRY — Other than getting anything off the plants — including lawn grasses — that can smother them, the best scenario is to let them dry out. Don’t drive cars or heavy equipment onto lawns and landscapes; that will only increase compaction and reduce soil porosity. Let the grass grow for a while before you fulfill that urge to mow again. The mowing can wait . . . even ’til spring if necessary.

RESEED AND REMULCH — Allowing eroded or bare spots to prevail into the winter should be avoided. Lawn areas that are washed away should be refilled with a 50 percent blend of good local compost and topsoil then overseeded; in most areas there’s still time for at least some of it to germinate. Utilizing at least 50 percent perennial ryegrass in the seed mix will help with quick germination before it gets too much more cold outside.

Even if you think it’s too late to overseed, at least put compost down as mulch until spring. Compost has tremendous healing properties for plants and soil. You can also apply compost around your trees and shrubs and perennial gardens at this point.

No matter what, avoid fertilizer containing nitrogen at this point on both lawns and other plants if they’ve been flooded. They need time to recover on their own before they acquire any urge to start pushing out new growth.

 

OTHER RESOURCES:

The beach my daughters swam on last week washed ashore in the wake of hurricane Sandy — making for a good story for Grampa Steve, a displaced New Yorker who came to Rhode Island looking for higher ground.

 

 

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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