Since the tornado blasted through my neighborhood in northeast Jacksonville, I can barely recognize the streets I have called home for 47 years.
We came to this street and to this house when my husband was fresh out of graduate school and a new teacher at Jacksonville State University. When we first made Jacksonville our home, we frequently drove through this neighborhood and I longed to make the northeast side my home. I loved this place (and still do). The enormous trees lining the yards of the 1960s ranch homes seemed the perfect place for my family to live.
The tornado of March 19 has changed its face dramatically. Many of the neat brick ranchers are in pieces, covered by blue tarps with ominous red signs posted on their front doors.
I mourn for my neighbors, a mix of retired people, young couples and college students. They are displaced, in shock, and in some cases their worldly belongings are in piles along the curb or in construction bins in the yards.
Many are first-generation residents of “The Avenues” (our term for the northeast side of town); others are second-generation. Some live in their parents’ houses, enjoying the cozy little neighborhood nestled among the forests of pines and hardwood trees. I hope they will rebuild and keep our neighborhood vibrant and strong — and replant the trees that made our streets so desirable.
It is hard to relax now that the sound of chain saws begins at dawn and lasts until nightfall.
The majority of old trees, with large trunks and huge canopies, are now just piles of debris piled high along the curb, waiting to be picked up and turned into mulch.
My two old pines, which had probably been here since way before I was born, are in the gutter, chopped into pieces and stacked there by a backhoe after the big wind uprooted them.
A 30-year-old dogwood (that appeared as a volunteer) is at the bottom of stack.
For four decades, those giant pines swayed in the breeze and protected my dear little shade garden. I had no inkling when I planted those tender specimens that one day, in just a few minutes, their protection would be gone.
White and pink dogwoods still line the streets on the northeast side of town. Many, like mine, just came up on their own. I have enjoyed driving through the neighborhood to see the spectacle. Their spring show was breathtaking, and a delight after a dreary winter.
When everything else in some yards was on the ground, the dogwoods covered in bright blossoms remained, giving shell-shocked homeowners something to pin their hopes on.
There is a Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
My neighbors and I have enjoyed the trees someone else planted for us. Now it is our time to be the planters, the ones who provide the beauty and the shade for the next generation.
My new trees are ready and waiting; a visit to Bloomin’ Miracles resulted in two new trees for my garden.
I realize now is not a good time to plant, but I was so down I needed to do something to restore my faith in the future.
The loss of shade trees
Our wonderful shade is gone. No more lazy summer days under a shade tree enjoying a rest in a lounge chair or in a hammock. Those, like me, who had huge shade gardens now have full-sun gardens. Those shade-loving plants may not thrive in their new environment. Some of us humans may struggle in our new normal, too.
Plantsman Hayes Jackson has told me that plants may adjust to these changes provided they have plenty of water. However, as I have personally discovered, no amount of moisture may save a plant that is frying in the Alabama sun, especially ones whose preferred home is in a woodland garden.
Homeowners will need to provide lots of TLC for those plants whose environment has radically changed. It may be hard to judge this first summer whether a plant will survive as it goes through a period of adjustment. Some may struggle and eventually disappear. Others may hang on but never reach their full potential. It may become necessary to remove them and replace with ornamental shrubs and trees that are more sun- and heat-tolerant.
A good layer of fresh mulch around existing plants will help to keep the soil cooler, conserve moisture and keep down weeds that may now thrive in the new growing conditions.
If you have not done a soil test in a year or more, taking one now is a good idea to see if the soil needs amending. The better the soil, the better chance your plant has of surviving.
In my situation, the uprooted trees covered my nice garden soil (and dozens of plants) with a layer of thick red mud. Before you begin replacing plants, it may be necessary to amend the soil with a layer of organic matter to give the “newbies” a healthy beginning.
Filling in holes
Those overturned trees also left large gaping holes after backhoes removed the enormous root balls. When it was necessary to bring in machinery to repair a leaking gas line, I was left with a deep, wide hole.
Such holes will need to be addressed taking another step. Several loads of soil may be needed to fill in the holes as the ground keeps settling. The kind of soil chosen will depend on whether repairs are to a lawn or a flower bed or preparing for a single-hole planting.
Since I personally am repairing a flower bed, I will use a very good quality top soil heavily amended with organic matter. For the hole in the lawn, I will use a good quality topsoil.
Caring for your lawn
Speaking of lawns, grass will not be unhappy with more sunshine. Your lawn, however, will definitely need more water over the summer months, as the new growing conditions will shock it.
If you have to replant your lawn, choose your turf carefully to make sure it is heat- and cold-tolerant and will do well in your growing conditions. (Time for a soil test too!)
The Alabama Extension System has excellent resources to help with that choice. Extension agents are also able to offer advice. There are several actions that need to be done to grow a beautiful healthy lawn; take the time to do it right and you will be rewarded.
Caring for shrubs
If shrubs have not been too badly broken or bent, careful pruning may provide a fresh start. But if shrubs (and especially roots) are bent, torn out of the ground, broken, seriously damaged or in some cases just gone, new shrubs will help fill the void.
I have established a medical ward where I put some storm-damaged plants into containers to see if they can be nursed back to health. Others too large for containers have been moved to a shadier location.
Don’t replant yet!
Fall and early winter are normally the best times to plant in our neck of the woods. I realize all those displays of blooming plants everywhere now is very tempting, especially if your garden is bare and broken. If you can wait a few months to plant, it would be healthier for the plant and easier for the gardener. If you see something you love, consider putting it in a container until planting time is here.
Spend the hot months getting a soil test, improving your soil, and getting ready to plant. Summer can be a difficult time to put plants in the ground for both plants and people; plants require more care especially in terms of water. In Jacksonville, we had watering restrictions last summer and a watering ban several years ago.
I am aware, however, that many people (like me) are desperate to get something in the ground. We are naked up here! Folks perhaps need a privacy screen or just want to begin to replace the trees. Be aware that whatever you plant will need very careful care this summer. If you do decide to plant, consider installing a homemade drip irrigation system to help with the watering chores.
If you are desperate for color, container gardens are always wonderful. They can be as big or as small as you desire. They can hold dwarf trees or a multitude of bright flowers to make your yard more cheerful. Line a porch, a deck or your front walk. Consider planting ornamental shrubs that can later be added to your landscape.
Do your research
As you get ready to replant, scan the Alabama Cooperative Extension System website (aces.edu) for suggestions on plants that do well here. Purchase a good garden reference book such as “The Southern Living Gardening Book” and spend some time making lists. Online sites such as the one for Plant Delights Nursery provide a lot of good plant information. Visit nurseries where knowledgeable staff can help make suggestions. Make lists of appealing plants that seem to do well in others yards. Speak with local extension agents for special help.
The next “Southern Gardener” column will feature plants that are tough, beautiful and perform well here.
Whenever or whatever you decide to replant, keep the following in mind:
• Choose plants to provide color in your garden all year.
• Select plants to attract beneficial pollinators in your garden.
• Keep in mind how much time and energy you can give for care and maintenance.
• Choose a plant suited to your growing conditions.
• Use native plants.
• Limit use of plants requiring high water usage to focal points.
• Consider drought-tolerant plants.
The wrong places to plant
Be aware of guidelines for planting around power lines and gas lines. Alabama Power publishes an informative pamphlet entitled “Plant the Right Tree in the Right Place.” Of course the first guideline is, “Trees should never be planted directly under the power lines.” Shrubs and flowers that do not exceed a mature height of 10 feet may be planted underneath a power line as long as access along the power line is not blocked. Trees need to be planted far enough away from the power lines to allow them to develop their full canopy.
It is also essential to call to verify the location of other underground utilities before you dig and plant. Call Alabama One Call at 811 to request that a representative come out and mark your lines. Unfortunately, one of my old pines was on the gas line, which broke when the tree fell, causing a dangerous gas leak on my property. Talk about scary.
I wish my fellow survivors patience, courage and strength as they begin the process of starting over, whether it be in the garden or in their homes. Some may relocate to homes without trees. We are staying. My psyche is shaken as I remember that awful night when the wind seemed to consume us, listening to the sounds of flying objects hitting the roof, and at sunrise viewing the disaster that surrounded us. Although my damage was not nearly as overwhelming as others, I need a tarp on my heart instead of my roof.
There will be a new normal in my neighborhood and other areas of Jacksonville hard hit by the wrath of the March 19 tornado. We have the opportunity to create our own urban forest. We can and we will.
Sherry Blanton writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.