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A hailstorm one year on – how do you recover?

Kate Wall

Kate Wall

February 27, 2016

We are hearing more and more that climate change is likely to lead to more severe storms, so cleaning up a garden after a big hailstorm is something we are probably all going to need to do at some stage, and many of us may already have had to do so. Major hailstorms occur around much of Australia and much of the world, with one storm in Sydney in 1999 resulting in the state government declaring a state of emergency.


Hailstones from Sydney’s 1999 hailstorm

This storm still tops the Insurance Council of Australia’s list of the 10 largest catastrophe events (adjusted to 2011 values). A hail storm in Brisbane in 1985 also makes the list as does severe storms in NSW in 2007. Over the last few years Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane have all recorded devastating garden destroying hail storms. Allianz Insurance lists hail as accounting for more than a 3rd of all natural hazard insurance losses between 1968 and 2005. This only covers damage to our homes and cars, but what can we do about our gardens?

For us, the big clean up came after a huge and terrifying hail storm ripped through Brisbane suburbs, smashing homes, cars and gardens in November 2014. The whole thing was over in about half an hour. I was pretty shocked and devastated to see the broken windows and mess inside the house but as we ventured outside I could not hold back the tears to see the state of my garden.

My cottage garden is trashed by hail

My cottage garden is trashed by hail

My fabulous cottage garden, full of salvias and other perennials was just green smoosh – literally!!! The soft leaves had been smashed beyond recognition. Nothing big enough to turn into cuttings was to be found – I know, I looked!

My blood lilies (Scadoxus multiflorus) were almost in full bloom and every single bloom was gone completely. My big red anthurium had been brilliant, but was now in tatters. A year later it has a couple of new leaves, and one small new flower. My Crown of Gold (Barklya syringifolia) tree was leaning on the fence but not yet down. My bananas lay over the opposite fence, completely bare of leaves.

We lost our local trees. Not just a few, but THOUSANDS of mature trees. The official count was 3000 mature trees over a handful of Brisbane suburbs. Massive figs fallen over with roots in the air, old gum trees completely splintered. I am still in awe that so much damage could be done in so little time.

Hail-damaged plants with shredded leaves and broken stems

Hail-damaged plants with shredded leaves and broken stems

In gardens leaves large and small got shredded and smashed. Bromeliads took it badly, they got shredded. Heliconias and the like also shredded. Dracenas had chunks missing from the stems and what leaves were left were torn to tatty streamers.

In my own garden and those of clients (the majority of whom were all in the path of the storm as well!) I got busy and trimmed like crazy, cutting off the tattered foliage and broken stems to allow clean wounds which would heal better and promote regrowth. Where I could I trimmed damaged leaves but didn’t remove them completely so that the plant had something left to keep photosynthesising and help it reshoot faster.

Bromeliads were tricky. Being tough leaves which don’t regrow, broms took the longest to recover, and the bigger the brom, the longer it took. We could trim them a bit but largely we had to wait for pups to replace the shredded foliage. By now, just over 1 year on, most have pupped and clumps are looking good again, although hail scars aren’t hard to find on large broms still.

In many gardens I spread blood and bone to give a nitrogen hit, plus generous doses of Seasol to get things growing back as fast as possible. Of course our sub-tropical weather helped. Hot and wet. Rain washes minute amounts of nitrogen out of the atmosphere, fertilising as it waters, and is the reason the garden always looks that much greener after rain (as opposed to watering with town water).

My smooshed cottage garden may have looked like a pile of mulch, but that green mulch broke down pretty quickly recycling the nutrients back to the soil. Things grew back pretty fast. I lost a couple of plants but on the whole my garden recovered well and quickly, as did most of the gardens around.

Hail damage in the garden - pitted bark on shrub stems

Hail damage in the garden – pitted bark on shrub stems

By now, the only evidence of a huge storm are the scars still visible on tree trunks where chunks of bark were gashed away by huge, sharp hail stones. I am pleased to say that we tied the Crown of Gold tree to the house to hold it upright, gave it some superphosphate and seasol to encourage new roots, and it is still going fine. Fingers crossed we can untie the rope soon and it will stand on its own again. It even flowered for the first time this year, so maybe I should have treated it with superphosphate sooner!

My garden recovered quite quickly through the Brisbane summer

My garden recovered quite quickly through the Brisbane summer

Now that the roofs have been replaced on thousands of homes, windows re-glassed and home repairs generally complete, replanting of the trees has begun. Council understood the value of what was lost and massive tree planting programs are now rolling out. The community is being engaged in the process with community tree planting days, and tree species are being selected to be sympathetic to the trees remaining and the gardens in an area. In many areas where huge old trees were uprooted, arborists had the unique opportunity to see underneath, and in doing so found that the soil was much shallower in many places than anyone realised. New planting techniques are currently under development for these areas, which will allow mature trees to be replanted in these parks, but with greater anchorage to ensure they withstand future storms. It is very rewarding to see the community has come out in droves in support of our trees, and are now engaging in the replanting of their suburbs.

Planting replacement street trees

Planting replacement street trees

We were lucky that although the hail was huge and sharply jagged (formed when 2 large hail storms crashed into each other, forcing the small hail in each back up high, and freezing them together roughly before throwing them back down at us with the force of a category 2 cyclone), the weather was hot and the hail melted away quickly. We also had good rain with it, but not enough to waterlog. When hail lays thickly on very wet ground and doesn’t melt quickly, it can leave the wet ground somewhat chilled, and this cold shock can spell trouble for badly hail damaged plants.

Storm damage can seem devastating in our gardens, but the results are often not as bad as they first appear – aside from trees lost of course. If your garden has suffered storm and or hail damage, there are a few things you can do to help it recover:

1.  Safety first! Always make sure there are no fallen powerlines posing a danger and it is safe to venture into the garden. The next job is to clear fallen trees and branches – again be careful in case there are fences or other debris tangled in them. If a chainsaw is needed and you are not skilled at using one, wait and get someone who is, they are dangerous!

2.  Large trees that have lost limbs or broken off may need to be assessed for their safety. Depending on the severity of the break, new growth may be weak and always prone to breaking and the tree may be better off completely removed.

Hail damaged algaonema and New Guinea impatiens

Hail damaged algaonema and New Guinea impatiens

3.  Soft stemmed plants such as begonias are likely to suffer the most damage and may not recover if badly exposed to hail. If you have advanced warning of storms, delicate plants may be saved by providing them with some protection if possible.

4.  Around the garden trim and tidy as best you can. Shrubs that have been damaged should be trimmed to restore their shape and to create neat wounds which heal faster. The same applies to the soft stems of things like cordylines and dracaenas. Broken stems can allow water to sit and disease to penetrate, so best to cut them cleanly and on a slight slope.

5.  Trim up broken perennials. In most cases a good prune will encourage plenty of new growth.
Anything with large leaves that have been damaged can be trimmed but as often these leaves are slower to grow, you may wish to neaten the worst of the damage and leave what you can to support new growth.

Hail damage on an Alocasia transforms it into a Monstera

Jagged hail damage on an Alocasia transforms it into a Monstera. Sydney 2015

6.  Use the leaf debris in the compost or as mulch. Storms usually happen in warm to hot weather and the hot wet conditions speed the breakdown of these leaves, recycling the nutrients they contain and aiding regrowth. A sprinkle of blood and bone will also assist the breakdown process, plus adds an extra dose of nitrogen which aids regrowth.

7.  If you have had a lot of heavy rain, soils may have been leached of nutrients, so the extra blood and bone can give plants a quick fix to kick start recovery.

8.  Heavy rain can also cause water-logging, in which case you may want to follow some of the tips I gave recently for repairing a flooded garden.

Hail in courtyard - Inner West Sydney, April 2015

Hail in courtyard – Inner West Sydney, April 2015

9.  If you have blankets of hail laying around the garden – take a photo as it may be the closest you will get to a snow covered garden!, but then do get out and move it away from precious plants – especially warm climate plants which will not appreciate the chill. This is particularly likely to be a problem if hail storms hit during the cooler months and the hail takes longer to melt away, as in that time it can deliver a bigger chill to the wet soil, and can even burn sensitive plants.

10.  Anytime plants are stressed, a dose of seaweed emulsion will help, and depending on how much damage was done, your plants are probably somewhat stressed after a severe storm.

11.  When replanting trees to replace ones lost to a storm you may need to consider a few points such as – is this a safe place for a tall tree or should I go for something a bit smaller? Is this tree prone to limb drop (as many Eucalypts are)? Is my soil here ok to support a tall tree? Is this tree going to be able to cope with the strong winds in this location and is there a better choice of tree to withstand the winds or a planting strategy to create a safe wind break?

There is a science to the way windbreaks work, it is not as simple as planting a line of trees. If you are planning a windbreak, either for generally windy sites or to manage storm winds, I encourage you to do a little research to get a more effective result.

Enjoy watching your garden recover – they can be more resilient than we expect!

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