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
Figure 1. White paint and a paint roller in a bucket. Source: Tim Motis
Materials for anchoring trees upright include:
- 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
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.
Figure 3. A fallen tree protected from heat stress with a combination of debris (at the base) and white latex paint. Source: Danielle Flood
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.
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.
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.
Figure 8. Wire passed through poly pipe tubing, with tubing placed around a branch. Source: Tim Motis
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.
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.