Storm-tossed gardening

After natural disasters such as the recent tornadoes that raced through the South, storm-damaged garden plants often recover much better than expected, says a gardener who's braved floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes.

Courtesy of Nellie Neal
Flowering maple (Abutilon) sets up a tower of flowers that hummingbirds visit even as tornado sirens wail.

After the disquieting experiences of life’s disasters (natural and otherwise), I seek the garden, where recovery usually comes blessedly faster than anywhere else.

It’s not that I attract catastrophic weather or can even predict it. The fact that my one lifetime has witnessed every sort of natural calamity does not send people fleeing into the streets when I approach. Yet one of my most vivid memories of elementary school is filling sandbags against the rising Ouachita River in Louisiana.

From hurricanes to tornadoes

The first hurricane I remember is Audrey -- I always "knew" she was named for my mother.

I’ve driven through a Texas sandstorm and dug out my car buried by a blizzard Humboldt County, Calif. Earthquakes have rearranged my furniture more than once, and an engine fire consumed years of handmade blankets and quilts in a heartbeat when I used them to put it out before it could reach the house.

Last month’s killer tornadoes touched down too near my house and destroyed the venerable Malaco Record Studio just down the road. When the air turned green that day, I was sure there’d be more losses than the huge red oak in the front yard toppled by a twister a few years ago.

It was a few days before my neighbor’s neighbor’s three-trunked oak fell, taking with it all the wires and the services they provided on the block.

Out of power and thus unable to work that day, the bunch of us with home-based businesses gathered to watch and offer encouragement to the platoon of utility, cable, natural gas, and police professionals who worked all day to restore us to the 21st century.

Plants recover quickly from natural disasters

It always amazes me how quickly things get back to normal in the garden after such events tear them up. The plants usually recover, fortunately unaware of the garden "rules" that are supposed to apply to them.

I’ve replanted hostas at the wrong time when they were suddenly shade-deprived and noted that lawn grass does do so much better in full sun, once the water recedes.

Everyone knows about the ‘Peggy Martin’ rose that bloomed undaunted despite Katrina’s weeks-long flood south of New Orleans. (If you don’t know, visit this Texas A&M website). She’s blooming now in my front garden, basking in sunlight created by the red oak’s loss.

OK, so the trellis needs rebracing again after the latest storms, and I had to prune out some major canes that got crushed. Like most storm-tossed plants, Peggy doesn’t seem to care that I’ve chopped on her rather mercilessly at midseason.

“Bless her heart,” as we say in the South, “she doesn’t even know her slip is showing.”

A green blessing from a flood

So now we’re in flood mode here on the lower Mississippi River. Just weeks after the record-setting tornado catastrophes, reporters dressed in waders fill the TV screens. I’m reminded of a flood long ago in Thibodeaux, La., when the water came up quickly in the street by my apartment.

As I drove the old Chevrolet to higher ground, its wake sloshed waves up to the top step of the house, and I barely got out.

The ride was scary, the brakes were saturated, and I slid to a stop, white-knuckled, on the neutral ground outside a friend’s place. The flood got into that street before midnight, and the second-floor flat was full of refugees like me for two days.

When the rain stopped and streets reopened, my friend called out for help to ditch the standing water in her garden. I opened the car’s trunk to retrieve shovels and rakes, and there was the proof: Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor.

The tools were still strapped in, but it was clear that the lower half of my car had been at least partly submerged for some time.

A package of collard seeds had gotten loose in the maelstrom and sowed themselves across the carpeted floor of the trunk. Three square feet of uniform, pleasantly green, perfectly healthy collard seedlings smiled up at me. They looked better than many flats of seedlings I’ve worked hard to grow!

I doubled over in hysterics, while my friend had the good sense to lift the carpet out of the trunk and into her garden. A few weeks later, the collards were all that remained of that storm, and we refugees held a raucous reunion and ate them up. Just another jitterbug on my dance card of disaster.


Nellie Neal gardens in beds and containers and on windowsills in central Mississippi and south Louisiana. She never met a plant she didn’t want to propagate. Her website is To read more by Nellie here at Diggin' It, click here.

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