Imagine spending years establishing and cultivating a beautiful landscape on your property, only for it to be destroyed in a heartbeat from a severe storm. Couple that with a limb through your roof and you have a real disaster on your hands!
Who do you call? What do you do about your roof? How will your garden ever recover? In the past two weeks or so, Master Gardener Pam Hohn and her husband, Chris, have faced a steep learning curve on this matter following extensive damage from a recent tornado.
Early Sunday, May 26, severe storms moved through Champaign County, generating three tornadoes identified by the National Weather Service in Lincoln. Just before 1:30 a.m., a tornado touched down in southwest Champaign, with another developing shortly thereafter in south Urbana. Minutes later, as this line of storms moved east, it produced yet another identified tornado just south of Saint Joseph.
All in all, each tornado created a path of destruction about 250 yards wide and nearly a mile long. I was able to visit with the Hohns earlier this week to hear their story and view the damage at their house and surrounding neighborhoods.
"I was awakened by a lot of noise, the entire house was shaking," recalls Chris. "All of it took less than a few minutes."
After just minutes of intense winds, extensive damage to the Hohns' yard, landscaping and porch roof was left for Pat and Chris to assess in the darkness.
"Since it was dark, we couldn't see the full extent of the damage right away," Pam recollects. "Urbana police had to park all the way over on Vine Street and walk down our cul-de-sac. One officer mentioned there was damage from Race Street to Philo Road, so I knew we probably had a lot of damage."
Once the Hohns could assess the full extent of the damage in daylight, they realized that a major portion of their west landscape bed was a total loss due to a large white pine that fell across the bed and into their porch roof. In total, three large white pines were extensively damaged, with winds blowing two entirely to the ground and stripping more than half the limbs off one left standing.
Pam pointed out a very key reason why the damage was so extensive on her white pines: "At the time of the storm, soils were saturated from consistent spring rains making it easier for trees to uproot."
Saturated soils do often coincide with spring storms, making trees very susceptible to wind throw. It is often the "perfect storm" type conditions, which was indeed the case on May 26.
As homeowners, what are some things we can do to make our trees more resilient to storms? Although there isn't much we can do about saturated soils, it is certainly a huge help to have the canopy of mature trees inspected by a certified arborist prior to heavy winds. A certified arborist can advise homeowners on structurally weak branch attachments or defective branches in the canopy, with many treatment options from pruning to cabling and bracing available to add some stability to weaker limbs.
"It was really nice having a planted border between our house and the neighbors," says Chris. "We do plan to replant this area, but not with white pines."
White pines have relatively shallow roots, as Chris notes. Other native species, such as our oaks, are deep rooted and more resilient to high winds. Homeowners can select native trees with more extensive root systems as one way of preparing for storms, although no tree can stand up to the most extreme winds in a tornado. With that in mind, careful placement of large trees in the landscape with respect to potential targets below can help. Consider the mature height and spread of any tree that is planted and be sure that valuable structures below will be outside of the tree's footprint.
The Hohns were gracious enough to volunteer their gardens for the Champaign County Master Gardener's 2019 Garden Walk. Over the past few weeks, they have faced a difficult choice on whether or not to participate following the storm. In the end, the Hohns decided others could learn from their tragedy. They plan to stay on the Garden Walk this year and look forward to sharing their experiences with visitors. I can attest that every other corner of their garden is still absolutely beautiful and the storm-damaged area is getting better by the day.
If you are interested in viewing the Hohns' garden and many other wonderful and interesting spaces across Champaign-Urbana, the 2019 Garden Walk will be held Saturday, June 15, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets may be purchased online at go.illinois.edu/GWtickets or at the Champaign County Extension office, 801 N. Country Fair Drive, C.
Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties.