Triage and Recovery of Small Trees Toppled by Storms

Hurricane Ian felled many trees on ECHO’s Global Demonstration farm in southwest Florida. A tree blown over by strong winds can be recovered if most of the roots remain attached to the trunk. Here is a step-by-step process that we successfully used following Hurricane Irma, and have implemented after Hurricane Ian as well. It incorporates input shared by Dr. Jonathan Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist with the University of Florida. The process could apply to other storm-affected areas and be adapted based on available materials. Pruning trees to maximize their resilience to strong winds is important, but is not discussed here.

Step 1: Gather materials that a team of two to four people can use in minimizing tree stress and then standing up trees.

Materials for use in minimizing stress to trees include:

  • Water-based white latex paint
  • Paint rollers or brushes
  • Mixing bucket

White paint
Figure 1. White paint and a paint roller in a bucket. Source: Tim Motis

Materials for anchoring trees upright include:

  • T-posts
  • Post pounder
  • Ear plugs (the pounding in of posts is very loud)
  • Wire (we used two-ply wire)
  • Wire cutting tool
  • Poly pipe or hose (old material you don’t mind cutting into short lengths)
  • Pruning shears or knife to cut poly pipe

Materials for righting trees
Figure 2. Tools for righting trees. From left to right: T-posts, post pounder, ear plug, wire, wire cutter, and poly pipe. Source: Tim Motis

Step 2: Identify fallen trees that can be saved

Look for trees with intact trunks. A tree with a split trunk may be too unstable if stood up. Also, look for trees with roots still attached to the trunks. If the root system is sheared off the main trunk, there will be no way for the tree to take up water and nutrients. Lastly, look for trees that are small enough to be SAFELY lifted upright by the humanpower and/or equipment available. Paint a mark on trees to be saved; this lets workers know which ones to focus their efforts on in terms of tree-saving.

Step 3: Protect fallen trees from sun and moisture loss

The canopy of a fallen tree no longer shades the soil. Moreover, exposed wood is subject to sun damage. Unless you can stand trees upright right away, protect them from heat stress as soon as possible after a storm. Use one or a combination of the following methods:

  • Cover the base of trees, exposed roots, and exposed wood of major limbs with debris. Banana or palm leaves work well (Figure 3).
  • Exposed wood can alternatively be protected by painting with a 50/50 mix of water with white latex paint (Figure 4; Crane and Balerdi, 2006). The white p
    aint reflects sunlight, keeping painted wood from overheating.

tree protection
Figure 3. A fallen tree protected from heat stress with a combination of debris (at the base) and white latex paint. Source: Danielle Flood

mixing paint
Figure 4. Mixing white-wash paint. Source: Ashley Dawson

Step 4: Dig out soil at the base of the tree

Rainfall during a storm may wash in soil at the base of fallen trees, filling in any holes/cavities created as the trees fell. Dig out enough soil around the base of a tree so that, once the tree is stood upright, the roots will be at the same soil depth as before the storm.
watering tree
Figure 5. Water running from a hose to the base of a tree. Source:* Tim Motis

Step 5: Water the base of the trees

Before standing the trees upright, apply a liberal amount of water at the base of the tree. This softens the soil and maximizes the flexibility of the roots, reducing breakage of roots while the tree is being stood up. This can be done with a hose attached to a nearby spigot (Figure 5), or with water brought in via watering cans or buckets.

Step 6: Stand up the tree

First pound in two posts at an angle (Figure 6). Anticipate the direction that a tree will move as it is being stood up. The arc (dotted line) shown in Figure 7A depicts this. With that direction of movement in mind, place the stakes to result in the 90 degree angle shown in Figure 7B. Metal T-posts for fencing may have tooth-like studs/nubs along one side. Pound the post with studded side facing away from the tree. This, and pounding the post in at an angle, will keep the wire from slipping upwards on the post.
Pounding in posts
Figure 6. Pounding in a T-post with a post pounder. Source: Lucille Mylin

Figure 7. Pounding in a T-post with a post pounder. Source: Stacy Swartz

Next, cut enough wire to anchor the tree to posts as shown in Figure 7B. Cut a section of poly pipe about 30 cm long. Pass the wire through the cut section of poly pipe (Figure 7B and Figure 8). Place this around a strong branch to keep the tubing from sliding downwards on the trunk over time. Select a branch at a height that will result in the 45° wire angle shown in Figure 7B. To minimize tension on one part of the tree, which may be necessary for larger trees, loop the poly pipe around two separate branches/stems, as shown in Figure 9. The poly pipe keeps the wire from cutting into the bark of the tree over time. If you do not have poly pipe or similar tubing, you could use burlap bags.
tubing to protect tree
Figure 8. Wire passed through poly pipe tubing, with tubing placed around a branch. Source: Tim Motis
Two tubes to protect tree
Figure 9. A tree with two sets of poly pipe and wire instead of one. Source: Tim Motis

With the wire and poly pipe in place, you are now ready to stand the tree up. Simultaneously lift and push the tree up (Figure 10) and then secure the wire going to each post. The wire can then be tightened, which we accomplished by twisting the wires going to each post (a rod or pipe 30-40 cm long can be placed in between the strands, half-way between the post and the poly pipe, and rotated to twist the wire.

Step 7: “Muck” the tree in

With the tree now upright, examine the soil at the base of the tree. Use a shovel and/or your hands to cover exposed roots, filling in air gaps/cavities with wet, muddy soil. This ensures good contact between the soil and the roots.

Concluding thoughts

After you have stood the tree upright and anchored it with wire, follow up with watering as needed. Take care not to overwater. Trees that have lost a lot of branches and leaves will need less water than they did formerly.

After about a year, remove the support wires and poly pipe. This prevents damage to the tree that could eventually occur. It also restores the movement of trees in response to wind. There is evidence that movement of trees with wind results in root growth that strengthens the resilience of trees to storms (Nicoll and Ray, 1996).

Perhaps you have also learned valuable lessons about tree recovery after storms. Your comments and insights are welcome and much appreciated!
Figure 10. Pushing a tree upright. Source: Tim Motis

References and Further Reading

Crane, J.H. and C. F. Balerdi. 2006. Preparation for and recovery from hurricanes and windstorms for tropical fruit trees in the south Florida home landscape. Proceedings of the Florida State Horticulture Society 119:45-49.

Nicoll, B.C. and D. Ray. 1996. Adaptive growth of tree root systems in response to wind action and site conditions. Tree Physiology 16:891-898.

Berkelaar, D. 2014. Strategies to help prepare for and respond to disaster. ECHO Development Notes no. 122.


Congratulations on a well described plan. Great illustrations and photos.

A question that comes to my mind is, just because you can, should you?

From an evolutionarily standpoint, should one be trying to save the weak trees that were blown over? If all of the trees were blown over then it seems like it would be too much work and if only a few of the trees were blown over it seems like those were weak and susceptible and may be not worth saving and will blow over again next time. Just a thought/question.

On second thought, because the fallen trees are on a teaching farm they probably have value as teaching tools and therefore my previous question is not relevant.

Hi Glen,

Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation! If this was a forestry or natural system, one would definitely want to consider the suitability of a fallen tree for the ecosystem before deciding to right a fallen tree. Intact tees falling does present us with the opportunity to think about the tree’s use or role in the system. Not every tree should be righted just because it fell, but there are many considerations that play into this.

Depending on the context, it may be important to try to preserve trees for social, economic, or system considerations. You are correct that some of our trees have teaching value on our demonstration farm. For example, our propagation manager uses budwood from mature mangoes for teaching about grafting and uses lychees for demonstrating air layering. Other trees have production value, are beloved by staff (social value), or play an important role on our farm. For example, we have a mango that fell that provides important shade for our ducks during the heat of the summer. Waiting for a new tree to grow would take a long time to provide that service for our ducks so it’s worth a shot to see if the mango will recover. Similarly, some overstory trees fell that provide vital shade to understory crops.

There is always the consideration too, of righting trees safely. If you do not have the equipment or machinery available to right a tree safely, it should not be attempted. Therefore, there can be a threshold of what size tree you can right safely.

1 Like

Good article, and the smiles on the workers says a lot about the resilience of ECHO’s team! :grinning:The creation is designed to have trouble in it, and it is the educator’s choice to make whatever steps that is of help to the needy. I am interested in the suggestion in this note about removing “some” of the crown on trees to be reestablished. I quote from a paper about myths of landscape trees:
There is a widespread belief that the crown size should mirror the roots to avoid straining the root system for water uptake. Initially this practice does reduce water usage, but soon the plant responds with new shoots and leaves, requiring not only more water but nutritional resources for their development.
Understanding how plants work is useful in explaining this response (Bayala et al., 2004; Jones et al., 1998; Martin et al., 2010):
•cutting branches removes growth-regulating auxins and allows dormant budsbelow these cuts to grow;
•new branches and their leaves require nitrogen and other essential nutrients fortheir development;
•expanding leaves require high levels of water to maximize leaf size;
•directing water and nutrients to the crown reduces their availability to roots;
•root growth and establishment is reduced without sufficient water and nutrients;
•root growth is further inhibited by the lack of auxins, which stimulate new rootdevelopment, and
•poor root systems are unable to take up sufficient water to support the crown.

This topic is very significant to me because I find myself often needing to move trees and shrubs. Commercially this is an important art so the argument made about considering removing material from the crown calls out for wisdom. I suspect that there is no simple rule to follow, but If anyone can advise me this would be a big blessing. Thanks!

Thanks for sharing the importance of this topic for your context, Jeff. We feel you are correct in that there is likely not a simple rule to follow! Reducing shoot biomass on trees to be re-established and “mirroring” root and shoot biomass reductions is often brought up in conversations we have about pruning and nursery practices. In the case of fallen trees, if the roots snap at the base so a (sometimes large) portion of the canopy could be compromised. The stresses on this tree may be different than a tree that is healthy and is just being moved. Additionally, we were actually not physically able to pull some trees up with a tractor without reducing the canopy. However, if you were moving a large tree, I think it would be ideal to take as much of the root system with you but depending on what is feasible you may not be able to take much. I also am wondering about the stability of the tree with reduced roots and a top-heavy canopy. Perhaps if you were able to stabilize it initially the root system would be able to grow more quickly as you have suggested. In addition to attempting to aid the tree, some other benefits to pruning while triaging trees might include:

  • lowering of tree canopy for better fruit harvest
  • normal pruning time to help initiate new growth (e.g. mangos) and/or flowering
  • pest or disease control (e.g. we cut back our lychee after the hurricane to help with mites)

There are always reasons and situations that may call for crown pruning that are unique to each farmer’s situation. Most of our experience is with fallen trees, not relocating established plantings.

We would be happy to hear from other network members! What are your practices when re-establishing trees? Do you reduce the shoot canopy or not? Have you seen success with your practices?