Piles of debris are accumulating along roadsides as we begin the cleanup process from the wrath of Hurricane Irma. This hurricane was different from Matthew because we were inundated with rain from a nor’easter before the storm, and then along came Irma packing very strong winds. Flooding was a major issue during both hurricanes, but this time flooding along the river was much worse compared to the beaches.
If you are late to the party, get busy picking up debris and place it in bags or stacks for roadside pickup. Check with your waste management facility because some municipalities have asked that plant debris should not be placed in plastic bags. Don’t stack the debris on top of or adjacent to storm drains. If possible, don’t place it on top of lawn areas, because the grass below may be killed or be more at risk of developing diseases. Remember how long it took for the plant piles to be removed after Matthew?
Next, determine if your plants were impacted by salt spray/water or flooding. For salt spray, simply hose the plants down to wash off the salt water. Plants whose roots were in standing water for 48 hours or more will have diseased root systems and will likely not survive unless they are traditionally wetland-type plants.
For those experiencing flood waters that contain salts, the easiest solution is to flush the soil with an inch of fresh water. Luckily, we have sandy porous soils so the sodium should leach quickly from the soil with irrigation or rainfall. Saltwater actually dehydrates plants by pulling water out of the roots, causing leaves to curl and turn brown along the margins. Unfortunately, many of us received vast amounts of water before the storm and very little, if any, after so we are dependent on irrigating plants to flush out the salts. Application of gypsum followed by irrigation is also a recommended practice. The calcium in gypsum displaces the sodium, but to calculate the amount of gypsum needed, a test for soluble salts (electrical conductivity) should be conducted first.
If salts from flooding are a problem in soils, now is not the time to fertilize plants. Fertilizers contain salts, too, and will add to the problem.
If there is mud on plant leaves or around the base of plants due to flooding, wash any debris away promptly. This will expose leaves to the sun so they can make food for recovery. It will also prevent burying the plant roots too deeply so they can take up water more efficiently.
Watering: If soils are saturated, the irrigation system should be in the off-mode. If there is standing water around trees or in other low areas, use a hose to siphon water to a better-drained area. Once soils dry out and the sun comes out, keep a close eye on plants as they may require more frequent irrigation because of root damage. When irrigating, apply between ½ inch and ¾ inch of water, which wets the top 6 to 9 inches of soil.
Shrub/perennial care: Some plants came through almost untouched while others look like they experienced a hard freeze. The latter have leaves that are hanging and appear to be totally fried. Others suffered damage on the side of the prevailing winds, while the back side looks pretty good. Plants that lose their leaves during a storm are often the survivors. A good example is the chaste tree (Vitex agnus castus). I have one that always loses leaves during a nor’easter, but it reliably leafs back out following the storm. Mine is already producing new growth along the stems, so has once again escaped serious damage. Woody shrubs like my pineapple guava (Acca sellowiana) that had tender new growth were burnt, while the mature leaves fared better. The growing tips of these appear to be dead, so some light pruning is needed to remove the damaged shoots.
Many of my perennials didn’t fare as well. Salvia plants are sticks with no flowers/leaves and my once-vibrant poinsettia that was thriving in what I thought was a protected area is nonexistent. A large planting of firebush (Hamalia patens) is a large clump of brown leaves. The tips appear to be dead but, further down the stem, the stem is green. My experience with firebush is that you can cut it back hard and it will bounce back with no problem. Before pruning, cut one of the stems to see if the wood is green; then prune back to healthy wood. It may be best to wait a week or two to see if plants recover before you start the pruning process. Perennials like salvia may flush out with new growth toward the base. Your patience may be rewarded by a miraculous recovery.
Palm care: Based on historic data with past hurricanes in Florida, some palms have proven to be more resilient than others. Sabal, Phoenix date, Canary Island date and pindo palms have the highest wind resistance, whereas queen and Mexican fan palms have the lowest. During Hurricane Irma, some palms toppled over, roots and all, while others were snapped in half.
Other palms were likely stressed because the bud was damaged by the high winds. There is no way to determine whether these trees will bounce back, so take a wait-and-see approach. Damage to the bud will show up in the new growth. As new leaves develop, they may be distorted, off-color or smaller than usual but, over time, the palm may recover and leaves will return to normal. This is why it is important to leave a full head of fronds (from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock) in place because this helps to protect the center bud. For more information on palms, refer to edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep465.
Disease problems likely: Keep a close eye on landscape plants and lawns for disease problems due to all the rain. Ornamental plants may succumb to root rot diseases in wet soils. Information can be found at bit.ly/2fxLq1k. Gray leaf spot, pythium root rot, brown patch and take-all root rot are the major lawn concerns. To find additional information on the symptoms and control of these diseases, go to edis.ifas.ufl.edu/lh064. Rake and remove all debris away from shrubs and lawns to give plants a chance to dry out.
Insects: With the high moisture levels in our soil, some insect activity may be more obvious. Ants are soil dwellers, so they may search for higher ground by building mounds above ground or take residence in potted planters or inside the home. There are many different types, and treatment will depend on the correct identification. Check here for details on ants in Florida: edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ig080.
Expect to see more mosquitoes, especially if you have standing water on your property. Plan to treat with Bti, Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, which is a great larvicide available in granules, bits or dunks. Flush out birdbaths, bromeliads, tree holes and other containers every three to four days to break the life cycle of container-breeding mosquitoes.
Replanting: The good news is that now is a great time to put in new landscape plants. The cooler weather will allow root systems a chance to establish while there is less stress on the plants. You might consider using these references to select trees that are more wind-resistant based on past experiences: hort.ifas.ufl.edu/woody/documents/FR173.pdf and edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fr010.
Terry Brite DelValle is a horticulture extension agent with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.