Q: My gardens have gotten quite a bit of hail damage this past week. Help!
A: Sigh…one weather phenomenon that is nearly guaranteed in our area is hail. Though it seems to occur most often in late summer (usually when those tomatoes are just starting to ripen), it can show up any time between April and October, and we’ve had quite a bit of it over the past week. As with most weather events, hail storms can be quite localized. One area of town can get enough hail to require snowplows while other parts won’t see hail at all. And some years, certain parts of town seem to get pummeled more times than seems fair! Residents of western parts of the county and far eastern parts of the county both claim to receive more than their fair share of hail every year. Living downtown does seem to sometimes be an advantage when it comes to hail.
What can local gardeners do about hail? You must learn to love your hail. Ok, just kidding! We certainly cannot control whether hail happens or not, but we can make wise plant choices, provide protection for those plants we must have that aren’t hail resistant, and know how to deal with the damage that comes after a particularly destructive hail storm.
When choosing plants, consider the shape and structure of the leaves and flowers. Beautiful, large, broad leaves, such as those on hostas, are most vulnerable to hail damage. By the end of the summer, most hosta leaves in our area resemble slices of swiss cheese. In fact, many gardeners have learned to appreciate that swiss cheese look! Plants with slimmer leaves that don’t lay out horizontally from the stem have a better chance of dodging leaf damage from hail. Some good examples include iris and daylilies. Plants with leaves that are small, flexible (rather than turgid, like lettuce or spinach leaves), and numerous also seem to make it through hail storms with less damage than others. Agastaches, some salvias, veronicas, cotoneasters, and blue mist spireas all have these types of leaves. Most of these also have many smaller flowers that don’t all bloom at once. So if some are stripped during a storm, there are reinforcements soon on the way. If a peony gets hit during its bloom, that is pretty much going to be it until next year. Not that local gardeners shouldn’t plant peonies! They’re wonderful plants; grow them if you love them. Just don’t plant ONLY peonies. A variety of plants with a variety of leaf and flower structures gives any gardener a better chance of not losing everything in a hail storm.
For those plants you must have that aren’t hail-damage-resistant, you can provide protection for them. If you are home, and hail starts, you can run out with a set of umbrellas to prop over them (if the hail is large, consider if it’s worth the risk to YOU to cover the plants). Of course, hail can be sneaky and come when you are not at home too. Some vegetable gardeners place hardware mesh or other screen-type material over their tomato cages as a permanent defense (the cages must be tall). The screens let water and some sun through but deflect some of the hail. Others drape very lightweight shade cloth over tall stakes around the veggie bed – the kind that blocks minimal sunlight. It is harder to provide permanent structures over plants like peonies, which grow out the top of their cages. Tall stakes with light shade cloth might be an option but may ruin the beauty of your beds as well.
So sometimes there is nothing to do but deal with the aftermath of the hail storm. At this point in the year, we are still early in the season. Plants stand a good chance of recovering and looking healthy again if you clean up any shredded, torn, or heavily damaged foliage and blooms. Some plants can be cut back to foliage that hasn’t been damaged. Then give them a dose of balanced fertilizer to help them recover. You’ll be surprised how good they can look in just a week or two.
Contributed by Carey Harrington, Colorado Master Gardener. For answers to your horticultural questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 636.8921 or CSUmg2@elpasoco.com. Access fact sheets and seasonal information on the El Paso County Horticulture website http://elpasoco.colostate.edu/horticulture/.