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When Mother Nature Strikes

When foul weather hits, we run for cover, heading indoors to escape the elements. But there's no such escape for the plants in our garden. So what can we do when our garden is flooded by rain, ravaged by high winds, or even shaken by an earthquake?

"It's human nature to want to rush in and fix things," says Frank McDonough, a botanical information consultant for the Los Angeles County Arboretum. "Winds and weather - that's a natural part of gardening. Plants have evolved millions of years to deal with this stuff. A lot of times you have damage to plants from people who think they have to repair them after bad weather. There's nothing to fix. It's a process of aiding the plant."

Different plants in your garden may require different aid as a result of - you guessed it - different weather damage. Take wind damage, for instance.

"The most important thing is to check your shade trees after high winds," says master gardener Maureen "Mo" Gilmer, an author of 15 books on gardening and the environment. "If they have had a branch that is just hanging there, it can fall on your home or your car. You want to check that before a snow-load gets on the tree or high winds return."

For deciduous or woody trees with damaged limbs, McDonough suggests cutting off the limb where it attaches to the next branch. Be careful not to cut it flush, since that will take away an important layer of the tree that helps it heal after it has been cut.

The sight of a tree stripped of its leaves after a windstorm may be unsettling, but it's completely natural, McDonough says.

"A plant can be stripped of its leaves several times and still have enough energy to re-foliate," McDonough says.

Flowering plants usually withstand windstorms without major damage, Gilmer says, although there are exceptions.

"If the plant is leaning because of the wind or rain damage, you might want to tie a stake or guy wire up to the plant to let it get vertical again," Gilmer says. "If it leans, it will stay leaning forever." Some weather-related losses in your garden, however, may not be avoided.

If your garden was in the path of a tornado, avoid the temptation to can or preserve the fruits and vegetables that you can salvage, says Dr. Barbara H. Ingham, extension food scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"The high winds of a tornado can disperse contaminants into home gardens, often damaging fruits and vegetables and making it potentially unsafe to can or preserve them," says Ingham. Caution is also recommended if your garden is flooded.

"Do not attempt to immediately can or preserve fruits and vegetables from the home garden that is damaged by flooding from a river or stream," Ingham says. "Wait at least four to six weeks before preserving any food from a flood-damaged garden."

Extensive flooding can also cause tree rot and fungus in the soil. "Sometimes when an area is flooded, silt or debris will float in and accumulate against the base of a tree," says Gilmer, who wrote "Living On Flood Plains and Wetlands: A Homeowner's High-Water Handbook" (Taylor Publishing, 1995). "If that is allowed to sit, it rots. You can lose whole sections of the tree. You want to check the level of the soil at the base of the trees or shrubs to make sure it was at the same level as before the event."

And then there are earthquakes. While the shaking doesn't damage most plants, it does wreak havoc on your home's sprinkler and water system, either causing underground leaks that should be checked or shutting off water completely.

"The big thing that's going to happen after an earthquake is you're not going to have water for a long time," McDonough says. "If it's the right time of the year, cut your plants back." Or he suggests using a Cloud Cover (a spray-on soluble plastic that keeps the plants from drying out) on them to help them survive without water.

So when it comes to helping your plants cope with bad weather, remember these tips. You'll never feel out of your element again.

When Mother Nature Strikes