I’ve been getting e-mails from Journal readers all week. Everyone’s freaked out about the blazing heat followed by the rain and the fog followed by the maddening wind. “What’s up with this weather?” people keep asking me. Like I would know.
As I write this, it’s the wind that’s making everyone nuts. It’s a forceful, antagonistic wind, the sort that flares up on sunny days just when you thought you could finally get outside and do something in the garden. The wind fights you and you fight back, but it’s a losing battle. Wheelbarrows get toppled over, buckets go flying across the yard, and chickens, if you happen to have chickens, are lifted unexpectedly off the ground, their wings functioning as sails (or, well, wings) as they flap about and try to get their feet back on solid ground. Hens get grumpy when their feathers are ruffled too much. So not only are you people e-mailing me about the weather, I’m getting grief from the poultry as well.
And the thing is, wind really does mess up a garden. It’s not just the broken branches and the downed trees. A stiff breeze will knock the moisture right out of a newly-leafed plant, drying it out and leaving it crippled, burned, exhausted. Plant cells rely upon water as a delivery mechanism for food, so when a plant is deprived of water, it’s also not getting its vitamins.
The problem of wind damage seems to be on everyone’s mind this year. I think that gardeners in Humboldt County are really starting to figure out that the problems they once attributed to poor soil, unexpected frost, summer drought, or chilly weather actually may be caused by wind damage. Yellow or burnt-looking leaves? Sulky little plants that refuse to grow? Wind. You try standing out there in that breeze all day and see how you feel.
So what do you do about the wind, other than send me e-mails complaining about it? The smart thing to do would be to plant tough California natives that can take a beating, and to find ways to shelter everything else. But that sounds like a project, and what I’m really interested in is an easy fix, preferably one involving products, because I love shopping for products. Sometimes, for me, gardening is really just an elaborate justification for a little retail therapy.
The first trick is to treat your wind-stricken plants like the ailing, dehydrated creatures that they are. Give them a good long drink and make sure they’ve got a layer of compost on top of their roots. Wind doesn’t just knock plants around; it also carries soil away. (This is particularly important for shallow-rooted rhododendrons.)
If that’s not reviving them, try a foliar feeding of an organic liquid fertilizer, preferably one that contains kelp. Try to get both sides of the leaves wet so that the plant absorbs as much of the nutrients as possible. Water the liquid fertilizer into the roots as well, and give the plant a week or so. If it doesn’t bounce back, repeat this process two or three more times before you give up on it entirely. I know someone who thought that his young cherry trees had been reduced to sticks in a high wind, but after a few feedings with a weak organic fertilizer, they revived.
If you’re really determined to protect some prized tree or shrub, there are even stronger remedies available. Ask the nice people at your local garden center to recommend a superfine horticultural oil that is appropriate for the plant you’re trying to protect. Horticultural oils are approved for use in organic agriculture, but that doesn’t mean you should use them indiscriminately. Be sure to follow all the instructions on the label and wear safety gear, and don’t apply more than the label recommends.
The idea behind using a horticultural oil is to coat the plant in something that will protect it from the wind. There is another product you can try — and I’ve never used it myself, so if you have, let me know how it works for you — an anti-desiccant called Wilt-Pruf. It’s a plant protector made out of pine oil that is supposed to protect broad-leafed evergreens by blocking evaporation from the surfaces of leaves. It’s also used to extend the lives of Christmas trees, wreathes, pumpkins and other living things that we bring indoors and torture with warm air from our heating vents. According to package directions, you spray it on, allow it to dry for a few hours, and then the plant is protected for a few months as the coating very slowly wears off.
There’s something a little creepy about spraying a protective coating on your plants, and it doesn’t seem like a very good long-term solution for lazy and forgetful gardeners like me who won’t actually get around to reapplying the spray every season. But I pass it on to those of you who may be better organized or more determined to keep your wind-intolerant plants alive.
I’m going to resort to my old stand-by, the one solution that works for all plant problems. If a plant isn’t doing what I want it to do, I threaten to kill it. The threat must be delivered out loud, right in front of the plant (plants have poor hearing, so you must speak up), and preferably with a pair of pruning shears in hand, to demonstrate both motive and intent. I’ve kept an ancient fuchsia alive for years with nothing more than death threats. Even if it doesn’t rally the plant, it’s a good way to let off steam. Try it sometime and let me know how it goes.