A brief wail about hail and some tips for dealing with its aftermath

I’ve been gardening for many years, so I guess I should count myself lucky that only one hailstorm has ever come my way. To be honest, though, as I look out at my shredded garden, which was pummeled by marble-size hail (not small marbles, the shooters) on May 31, I don’t feel very lucky. And that’s the big reason why I wanted to write about this topic.

In the big picture, having your garden flattened by hail is a small problem when you consider all the bone-crushing things going on in the world right now. But I admit, I could barely speak as I watched chunks of ice fall from the sky and squash my tomatoes and peppers, rip limbs from my shrubs, make mincemeat out of my hostas, and tear all the flowers from my newly blooming bleeding hearts and Virginia Bluebells.

After the storm passed, in just a little over 10 minutes or so, I went outside and took some pictures of the garden covered with ice. You could barely see the ground for all the white. The lens separated me from the plants in that way a camera can, so I didn’t really feel like I was looking at the damage, just documenting it. I told myself that things would probably seem better in the morning. But they didn’t. For several days I just ignored the damage, choosing to do other things than garden, like I usually do in the very early mornings before work.

Other gardeners were very sympathetic. They felt sad, too. After all, if you garden, you know how much you fuss over the plants you tend. How can you not be at least a little upset when they’re hurt or destroyed? A woman who just moved in down the street left a note in my mailbox asking whether she was going to have to replant her tomatoes and peppers. This spring was the first time she’d ever planted a garden, and she was feeling really discouraged about everything being killed so quickly.

I called to give her the bad news that if the vegetables stems had been crushed or badly damaged, she would need to replace them. I told her I was sorry this had happened and assured her that it doesn’t happen very often, so try not to get too frustrated with gardening. I’ve since heard that she did replant and is feeling pretty good about the whole gardening thing again. I’m glad. But I really get why she felt so sad. And if your garden was harmed by the hailstorm, I’m sorry for your loss, too.

Sure, aside from vegetables and annuals, most of the plants in our gardens will survive this beating. But some won’t. And even with pampering, it’s going to be a while before a lot of plants thrive and look like themselves again. I usually find working in the garden relaxing. But right now it feels a little like what I imagine making rounds in a hospital might feel like.  

Nongardeners don’t get it. They say stuff like: “Oh your garden still looks great.” Or, “Well I’m sure everything will come back fine next year.” I know they’re saying these things to cheer me up. (Mind you, it’s not as if I’m outside weeping over this. It’s just sad.) But this doesn’t do a thing toward making me happy. It just cuts off conversation the way any conversation is cut off when one person tries to express how they feel and another, perhaps with all good intentions, says something hollow yet chipper when a simple: “I’m sorry to hear that,” would have done wonders.

Anyway. Enough about my feelings about the hail. I do actually have some helpful tips to offer those who haven’t yet cleaned up after the storm. And if you have already turned your garden into a hospital, well, maybe this stuff will come in handy next time. (Knock wood there isn’t a next time.)

On the bright side, the storm happened so early that we still have time to replant tomatoes and other veggies harmed by the hail. It’s fine to leave minimally damaged veggies alone because they’ll likely recover. But those with broken or badly scraped stems should be replaced. They’ll never grow well, and even if they do, all the wounds will make them much more susceptible to disease.

Unless your trees and shrubs lost most of their leaves, they’ll probably be fine. You’ll want to prune off damaged parts. But first be sure check to see whether it’s a good time to prune your type of tree. Pruning at the wrong time of year can invite disease and insect problems. Check out this University of Minnesota Extension article for pruning timing and other advice: www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/DG0628.html.

Annuals aren’t as likely to survive a hailstorm as perennials are because their root systems are not as established. Still, even if your petunias are nearly liquefied, give them a few days to perk up before deciding to rip them out and replace them. Some annuals can be amazingly resilient and may surprise you with their ability to tough out a beating.

It’s back breaking, but if you can stand it, trim the tattered foliage off all of your perennials. It’s not helping the plant anymore and may even be taking up energy the plant needs to heal. It’s easier to just hack everything to the ground. But resist this temptation because plants need their foliage to help gather the energy they need to survive from year to year.

Soft-stemmed perennials like bleeding hearts should be cut down to the ground if they were severely damaged. If not, just cut down the mangled stems. Perennials with tougher stalks should be in better shape. But you may still need to cut off broken and torn leaves and stems. The more you have to remove, the more likely it will be that you’ll have less flowering and growth next year. To help damaged plants get over their trauma, try working some slow-release fertilizer into the soil around them as soon as you can and keep them well watered. (If you don’t like using things like Osmocote, you can also try fish emulsion or a little compost.)

Hang in there.    

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to [email protected].