Friday, May 12, 2017

Dealing with Hail By Joyce D’Agostino

Hail on May 8th, photo by Joyce D'Agostino

For many of us, having to deal with hailstorms is a reality. In this area of Colorado, we are in a hail zone meaning that we can experience more than the average hail events, and some of them can wipe out your garden in minutes.

In 2009, the Denver area had a very devastating hailstorm that included powerful winds. This occurred in late July, after about 9 PM and my mature garden was shredded. Not only was this very upsetting, but it told me that in order to try to successfully garden here, that weather protection, especially from hail is a must. Just recently we had a very powerful hailstorm in this area that including very large hail so there was not only damage to cars, roofs and siding but also damaged anything that was unprotected in gardens and landscapes. Hail can happen in any season so finding some permanent solutions that can stay up year-round will help.
Finding solutions was not always easy and it has taken me several years of experiments to try to find something that works reasonably well, without being very costly. I took a few years of testing out these ideas before passing them along to you. 

Here are a few things that I have tried that seem to have helped:

Photo by Joyce D'Agostino
1. Large frames over your beds, and using some sort of screen as overhead protection: I have several raised beds and they were all out in the open without any protection. I found a local source that sold carports and the frame happened to fit almost exactly over six of my square beds. I then searched the internet for some type of material for an overhead canopy. I found one greenhouse source that carried a heavier weight screening primarily as insect netting and online reviewers said worked well for hail protection (be sure to try to read reviews from customers when buying any gardening product). I have had this up for several seasons now and did find that it works well for most hail protection.  Since the frame was exactly the size of the beds, there was no need to anchor it down but if you find a similar idea and the frame is not an exact fit, you will have to securely anchor it to the beds and/or the soil to avoid it blowing over. A sturdy greenhouse type frame may also work the same way. 
  • Pros: worked well to stop most falling hailstones. The mesh was breathable and allowed for sun, rain and air movement. So far none of the hail has torn through this screen.
  • Cons: Found that the hail often doesn’t just fall straight down, we can have winds that blow it horizontally and this can do damage even with the overhead protection. I will now add some side pieces to the frame to try to stop the blowing hail. Remember you also need to allow some way for pollinators to come and go from your garden, so a complete enclosure would stop them from doing their beneficial work.
Photo by Joyce D'Agostino

"Pop-up" devices: This was the first attempt that I had used to stop hail damage after the 2009 storm. These items are basically four-sided net cages, some with flexible frames so that you can fold and store them. The material on the sides can vary, most are mesh or screen type materials. 
  • Pros:  I had to get something quickly and set it up to try to stop the storm damage. These worked fairly well for most larger hail. They also have a secondary purpose of keeping large damaging insects such as grasshoppers off your plants. The ones I have were some of the first version of this concept. Some of the latest types seem to have stronger mesh and have one side that is zippered so you can leave it open when you want to allow the bees and butterflies in.
  • Cons:  Very small hail can still get through the grid and do damage, so this year I will try to put some of the screen from the larger frame on the pop ups to test out. This device also has a flat “roof” so when there is a downpour of hail, it quickly can collect in a large pile. Any protection should have a peaked or arched roof to allow the hail to roll off. They came with some L shaped anchors to hold them down and with the first storm found that these don’t work, the soil was soft and the anchors popped out. Now I put large tap in garden stakes on each corner and connect to the pop up with a zip tie. Winds often are part of these big storms so more will be discussed on wind protection too. Also some of these may be costly so watching for sales helps. 

Hoops:  Hoops work very well when placed over beds to hold protective fabric. I have tested some of these out as well and plan to move to heavier types. I first purchased some flexible type hoops and found they need side and overhead support to hold the fabric in place and to avoid movement. The plus side is that they are easy to install but the downside is that they don’t always stay in place without a lot of added supports. Using stronger hoops will be tested.

Photo by Joyce D'Agostino
Net and plastic tunnels:  I just started testing this type of product. I started with  a small version that I placed over some cool season vegetables and after the recent hailstorm it seems to have done the job well in stopping the hail. The mesh is fairly small and this was designed to keep out damaging insects but also helped to stop the hail damage. There are many sizes of this type of product, with protection ranging from mesh screen, plastic, row coverage material and more. The bigger tunnels are supposed to work well for protection over large garden crops. I will be testing out a few this year and will report later how I feel they performed.

Fortunately it seems that more garden centers and online stores are selling products for hail protection. Some are specifically designed for this, others are ideas that you may test out that also work. The idea is to find something sturdy that provides as much protection as possible and without high cost. 

Trying to guess when the weather will be settled is not easy and often storms and big changes continue through the growing season. This year for example we had some record high temperatures in late winter and the early part of the spring. This prompted some to go out and plant their petunias and tomatoes and other warm season plants because they felt that winter was over and we were heading into a warm spring. But weather can be very changeable and just a week or so before this recent hailstorm, we had very heavy wet snow and freezing overnight temperatures.

Plan ahead to try any hail protection so that you aren’t caught as a storm is rolling in to try to figure out how to cover your plants. Going out as a storm is approaching is dangerous since most of these storms include lightning and some may happen when you are not at home or late at night. Try to find a few products that you think will work as a hail barrier and test them out. Often even something over the plants is better than no protection at all and you can then share your findings. 

Approaching our gardening and growing scientifically helps a great deal in coming up with solutions to any issue that can come our way, including these powerful storms. I have heard some people comment that due to the weather, they just don’t want to garden and that is unfortunate. I can understand their frustration but often there are solutions that work that can allow you to keep successfully growing. Go to your favorite garden center and ask the employees to help you find some products for weather protection.

To continue the scientific approach, keep good notes each year about the weather, what you planted, how well certain types did in your climate and which types to continue and what to stop. Test out methods for things like hail protection, note what worked for you and also share them so that others can benefit from what worked for you. 

We are all in this gardening effort together so joining forces and sharing information can help us continue to enjoy the wonderful hobby of gardening. 

Hopefully some of these suggestions were helpful to you. A few of these are still an ongoing test and I will do any updates as the season progresses. Sharing your tips is also welcome.