The Resilient Landscape, Preparing Your Plants for Weather-Related Disasters Part 1: Winds

Over the past few years it feels like we've earned the ire of Mother Nature. In Illinois we've experienced a severe drought in 2012 followed by another drought in 2013 along with the coldest winter in decades this past 2014. Plus, the tragic tornadoes that ripped through Central Illinois in November of 2013.

It is heartbreaking to see the results of natural disasters, when it affects entire communities or when the storm hits home. As a horticulture educator I am often asked in the aftermath of a weather-related disaster, "How do we restore our landscape?" This may seem like a trivial question in such times, say when a community is recovering from a tornado, but each time a person steps outside their home and is greeted by a ravaged landscape, they will be reminded of the disaster. What disaster has or is happening (in the case of drought) weighs heavily on the minds of those affected for a variety of reasons. Weather-related disasters create so much upheaval in people's lives, any opportunity to bring things back to equilibrium or how they used to be, is vital to morale. While I am not advocating that upon leaving the storm shelter homeowners immediately pick up a shovel and start planting trees, the question of what to do to remediate the landscape will come up eventually. So what can you do to protect your valued landscape trees and shrubs when we find ourselves amidst severe weather? What does it take to make our landscapes more resilient?

In the coming months I will explore what homeowners can do in the wake, in the midst or to prepare for weather-related disasters. In the book Weatherproofing Your Landscape by Sandra Dark and Dean Hill they classify weather-related disasters as the 'Big Four' – wind, drought, flood, and frozen stuff. Over my next blog posts, I will cover each of the 'big four' to help better inform you as a homeowner what you can do to make your landscapes more resilient.


Having lived in both Kansas and Central Illinois, I am no stranger to the damaging effects of high winds. Wind damage comes in multiple forms in the Midwest. We experience remnants of hurricanes, thunderstorms, sheer or straight-line winds, and of course tornadoes.

After the Disaster

Obviously, during an outbreak of strong winds or tornadoes the best course of action is to protect you first. During the storm, the landscape is on its own. After the storm has passed it is time to evaluate your property for those items which may pose a danger to you and others. Avoid areas with downed power lines. Do NOT try to remove any limbs or debris from power lines. Anything at all involving power lines is a job for the power company.

Ensure that large shade trees are stable and that there are no hanging limbs in the trees. Hanging limbs pose an unforeseen danger as individuals surveying the damage think they are safe until a gust of wind blows broken limbs out of your tree. Hire a certified arborist to remove hanging and damaged limbs. You can find a list of certified arborists by going to the International Society of Arboriculture's website and search via zip code.

It is also a good idea to have the arborist evaluate your landscape trees. This is important for preventing damage during a future disaster.

If you are removing landscape debris with a chainsaw remember these three important items:

  1. Wear proper safety gear- gloves, chaps, ear protection, and a helmet with a face shield.
  2. Never cut anything that is above your waist
  3. Your feet should never leave the ground when using a chainsaw. This means no ladders!

CAUTION! There are many more items which are necessary to know when operating a chainsaw, make sure you read your equipment operators manual and seek help from qualified professionals!

Preparing for Next Time

Getting your landscape trees evaluated by a certified arborist is the first step to preparing for future disasters. A certified arborist can guide you on tree removal, tree health, and tree pruning. Get in the habit of having the arborist make routine visits to monitor the health of your trees. Ask questions to educate yourself on what they are observing in your trees.

Thinning tree canopies can reduce a trees wind load and make it act less like a sail during high winds. Thinning the canopy is NOT tree topping. It is never advisable to top your trees, even though some landscape companies still practice this nasty habit. Topping your tree activates latent buds along the limbs left behind. These buds become the new branches and have a very weak attachment to the tree itself. This sets up the property owner to be in even worse shape than before the tree was topped.

If a tree must be cabled or braced to support a damaged portion, it is best to have a certified arborist perform this task.

Sometimes a weather-related disaster gives us a blank slate and we have to start over from scratch. When planting for the future ensure you select tree species that can withstand the wind loads common in your area. Those ornamental pear trees, which the home improvement stores sell by the truck-full, are notorious for being weak wooded. To be frank, if a tree is billed as fast-growing you should read it as 'weak-wooded and drops a lot of debris'. At the end of this article is a listing of trees that are rated as being resistant to high winds.

The saying goes "Right plant, right place". It is imperative that you select the species that is conducive to the planting site. Yes that five-foot maple is cute nestled near the house. But what happens when that tree hits 30-foot with more to go and its roots are constricted by your foundation and patio? You now have a poorly established tree that is not anchored well enough to withstand the increasing wind loads it is facing.

Avoid construction damage. Do you really need that retaining wall six feet away from the trunk of your mature oak? Roots that are severed or compacted by construction activities will stress out a tree and make it less resilient to extreme weather events such as strong winds. It is best to omit from any construction activities within the dripline (i.e. under the canopy) of the tree. This is the critical area of the tree's support and feeder roots, however, tree roots usually extend well-beyond the dripline. Truly, it is best to give a mature tree as much room as you can. Studies have shown that construction damage may not become apparent until up to six years later.

Plant it right. If your tree looks like a telephone pole sticking out of the ground, it is planted too deep. You should be able to see the bottom of the trunk flare out into the root system.

Backfill your planting hole with native soil. What comes out should go back in. In most situations there is no need to amend the planting hole.

Ensure your trees are adequately watered during times of drought. We will discuss watering and fertilizing your trees in further detail in next month's blog post on drought.

In short there are preventative actions that can be taken to make your landscapes more resilient to disasters. Of course, disasters vary by time and place and little can be done when facing an F-5 tornado, but we can always rebuild our landscapes to be resilient and sustainable for us and future generations.

Have you weathered a powerful wind-related storm event that left your landscape in shambles? What questions arose from your experience? Feel free to leave your questions and remarks in the comments box.

Next month: Drought

Trees Selected for Resistance to Wind (Hardy to zones favorable for Illinois)

Alder, black

Alnus glutinosa


Bald cypress

Taxodium disticum


Beech American

Fagus grandifolia


Birch, paper

Betula papyrifera


Birch, gray

Betula populifolia


Birch, river

Betula nigra



Nyssa sylvatica


Cedar, eastern red

Juniperus virginiana


Cherry, black

Prunus serotina



Malus spp.


Dogwood, flowering

Cornus flordia


Elm, American

Ulmus americana


Elm, lacebark

Ulmus parvifolia


Elm, Siberian

Ulmus pumila


Elm, winged

Ulmus alata



Ginkgo biloba


Hackberry, common

Celtis occidentalis


Hickory, shagbark

Carya ovata


Holly, American

Ilex opaca


Holly, deciduous

Ilex decidua


Hornbeam, American

Carpinus caroliniana



Ilex glabra


Kentucky coffee tree

Gymnocladus dioica


Linden, American

Tilia americana


Linden, littleleaf

Tilia cordata


Locust, black

Robinia pseudoacacia


Magnolia, southern

Magnolia grandiflora


Maple, Japanese

Acer palmatum


Maple, red

Acer rubrum


Mulberry, white

Morus alba


Oak, black

Quercus velutina


Oak, burr

Quercus macrocarpa


Oak, pin

Quercus palustris


Oak, post

Quercus stellata


Oak, red

Quercus rubra


Oak, Shumard

Quercus shumardii


Oak, white

Quercus alba



Diospyros virginiana


Redbud, eastern

Cercis canadensis



Amelanchier canadensis


Spruce, Norway

Picea abies



Liquidambar styraciflua



Viburnum spp.


Walnut, black

Juglans nigra


Table adapted from Weatherproofing Your Landscape by Sandra Dark and Dean Hill, University Press Florida


Dark, Sandra. Hill, Dean. (2011). Weatherproofing Your Landscape, A homeowner's guide to protecting and rescuing your plants. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.