Plant Care in Emergencies 

Sometimes weather conditions arise that can create havoc with our plants. Hurricanes and freezes are the two main weather events that concern us in southern Florida. 

Great care is necessary in choosing plants suitable for the environment. Obviously salt-tolerant plants should be used near the ocean and more cold-tolerant types selected for inland locations more subject to freezes. Sometimes we can play with microclimates to some degree. We can locate less salt-tolerant plants on the lee side of buildings where they are protected from salt winds and spray in normal conditions. Tender plants can be located on the south side of buildings where they are protected from cold winds. But extreme conditions with coastal flooding or freezes can eliminate these microclimate plantings. 

Hurricanes cause broken trees and branches, salt-water flooding and radical environmental changes for remaining plants. The first thing to do is wash down plants subject to salt water flooding. Apply as much water as possible. They may survive but it is questionable. Clean up fallen leaves, branches and other debris. This will allow low plantings and lawns to survive. Try to provide shade for potted bromeliads, ferns and other shade lovers by moving them under shrubbery. Sheets may be used to provide cover for other shade lovers in the ground. Fortunately, standing trees will leaf out in a few weeks to provide new shade. 

Trees are the biggest investment in the landscape and the ones most likely to be damaged. Palms vary in their wind resistance. Queen palms and coconuts are not that hurricane resistant. The tall veitchia species, royal palms and pygmy date palms are among the most resistant to strong winds. The taller wind resistant palms drop leaves in strong winds and present a bare pole to the strong winds. They develop new crowns after the hurricane passes. It is a good idea to apply copper fungicide to the crown to prevent possible crown rot. 

Ideally, standing trees should have broken branches removed by a certified arborist. The arborist will try to balance the tree's crown, remove stubs and crossing limbs and generally open up the tree so air passes easily through. There could be a long wait for a good arborist and you may have to do the work yourself. Shorten broken branches back to an outward facing fork and cut there just above the fork. Large branches may need to be cut at the trunk. Prune just outside the branch collar, which is the raised area on the trunk where the branch meets the trunk. Cut branches on the underside first to avoid rip cuts down the trunk as the limb drops. 

Fallen trees are a mixed bag. Rare specimens are worth trying to save. I would be inclined to dispose of the other trees as they have lost 50% or more of their roots and will not be stable again. I have seen trees that were replanted and they fall over again with every strong storm. This applies to palms as well as regular trees. A hurricane does provide an opportunity to plant superior trees to replace the fallen ones. Trees such as sapodilla, live oak, Indian tamarind, gumbo limbo and others have superior wind resistance and should be considered for future planting. Avoid weak sisters like ficus, ear leaf acacia, black olive and bischofia. 

Freeze damage is also fatal to many plantings. It is remarkable how cold south Florida's inland sections can get. I remember one cold year where it reached 35 degrees at Fort Lauderdale's airport one mile inland, 27 degrees in Davie about 10 miles inland and 19 degrees at Highway 27 about 20 miles inland. The Gulf Stream has a moderating effect, producing cooler summers and warmer winters along the coast, but the effects do not carry very far inland. The good news is that the cold spells are of relatively short duration seldom lasting more than two to three days. 

Try to protect cold sensitive plantings by pulling mulch away from the root systems and watering heavily just before cold weather occurs. The warm soil will release heat and give some protection to smaller plants. Sheets also can offer some protection against freeze/frost damage. Leave cold-damaged foliage in place until March after all danger of freeze has past. This old foliage will offer protection for the plants. The best protection is to avoid planting delicate tropicals in marginal interior areas. Fortunately these cold events may not occur for many years. The Keys are the only truly frost-free place in Florida.