Nebraska is no stranger to severe weather, and storms in recent weeks show just how damaging storms can be. While many focus on large trees that are toppled by storms, damage can also happen to fruits and vegetables in home gardens and farms.
Storm damage to fruits and vegetables can take various forms. From broken limbs in fruit trees to hail damage on fruits and vegetables or flooding raising food safety concerns, severe weather can have significant effects for the health and productivity of the garden. Some damage will require maintenance, while other warrants a wait-and-see approach. Here’s a list of some common types of damage to fruits and vegetables and what you should do (or shouldn’t do) about it.
Broken/fallen limbs from fruit and nut trees
When dealing with damaged limbs, the treatment for fruit and nut trees would be the same as for ornamental trees. Make sure any hanging branches are removed. Be sure that the wounds are cleaned up, meaning that you should prune back the damaged limb to a form or shape that is a clean cut consistent with appropriate pruning. Prune back to a branch collar and avoid leaving stubs that will likely die and become conduits for pests and diseases. Make sure that edges are smoothed out to avoid pockets where water can gather. If bark is torn off on parts of the tree that should be saved, remove any damaged bark. You may be able to reattach bark that is split off by using galvanized nails.
Keep in mind that trees that have hanging fruits are sometimes more susceptible to damage in storms due to the added weight of the fruit on the branches.
Hail and heavy rain damage
Hail has the possibility to damage both the edible and non-edible parts of the plant. Mild hail damage to non-edible portions of the plant such as tomato stems or leaves are usually non-lethal as long as the growing point(s) of the plant are not severely damaged. The growing point is the area where new growth occurs. This would be the tip ends of branches and limbs for multi-branched plants or the crown of rosette plants such as rhubarb or strawberries.
Extensive damage or defoliation of the plant could slow or stunt growth and reduce overall yield. Many plants will regrow and recover leaves after damage. Other plants aren’t as lucky. For example, corn cannot grow new leaves to replace removed ones, so excessive damage may totally destroy the crop.
Defoliation could also cause sunburn on fruits that are suddenly exposed to higher levels of sunlight than they are accustomed. Hail and heavy rain can also damage or remove flowers from the plant, reducing yield.
Keep in mind that damage can create an entry point for potential plant pathogens to enter the plant. Monitor damage plants in the weeks and months that follow for signs or symptoms of plant diseases.
Damage to the edible parts of plants, such as fruits or the leafy parts of leafy greens, can render the crop unusable, unmarketable, or even unsafe. Bruising can result in poor quality and possible further damage from rot. If open wounds are created on fruits, both plant and human pathogens could potentially enter the fruit. Removing damaged parts that may not be edible will free up resources to grow more/better uninjured fruits or edible parts
Aside from knocking limbs out of trees, wind can also knock over herbaceous plants such as corn or tomatoes. If the stems of these plants are not broken or severely bent, it may be possible for them to be retrained to grow upright or may do so themselves.
Excessive rain can result in both localized flooding or flooding from nearby streams. Poor draining soils or water sitting in the growing area can result in root damage by reducing the oxygen available to the roots. This damage can also lead to infection from soil-borne root pathogens that will cause a decline in the plant over weeks, months, or years. Make sure soils are well-draining to reduce this probability.
Another, more serious, threat of flooding is a food safety. Flood water, even that which occurs locally and doesn’t come from a stream, has the potential to carry contaminants that can severely affect the health of those who eat the produce. There are several precautions that should be taken if a garden is flooded.
First, discard any crop plants that are consumed raw, such as leafy greens. There is no way to properly clean the produce and remove all of the contamination. These plants should be removed from the garden. Any soft fruits, such as berries or tomatoes should be discarded if they cannot be cooked or if you think there could be chemical contamination.
Produce that was covered or touched by flood water should be discarded. If the actual edible portion of the plant was not touched by flood water, you may be able to harvest the edible portion and cook it for consumption. Thorough cooking can destroy aerobic foodborne pathogens, so you can sometimes salvage produce items from the home garden that can be cooked. Cooking does not destroy chemical or industrial contaminants. If you feel that there could be such contamination in the water or are not certain that there isn’t contamination, all produce should be discarded and plants destroyed.
You can read more on flooding in the garden from some of my previous articles from when I was working in my home state of West Virginia. In June 2016, severe and fatal floods swept through the state and many gardens and farms were affected.