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Here's how to prepare your yard as hurricane season approaches

Susan Haddock, left, is wearing a blue-collared shirt. She's standing next to Jessica Meszaros, right, who is wearing a flower print dress. They're at Meszaros' front porch. Haddock is gesturing her arm toward the green and burgundy plants on the ground in front of the house and Meszaros is looking down. The beige house has a white trim.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Susan Haddock, left, recommended to Jessica Meszaros, right, to have layers of plant material in order to deflect wind up and over the house. Haddock added that they should be planted 3-4 feet away from the house to have space for maintenance like cleaning or painting.

Experts explain how to get your property ready for strong storms. They share some tips on maintaining landscapes and trees.

With the start of hurricane season approaching next month, many Floridians are getting ready by stocking up on supplies, like water, batteries and shutters. But how many of us are thinking about the land surrounding our homes?

I recently purchased an older home on a little less than a quarter acre lot in Tampa. So, I invited Susan Haddock, with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension in Hillsborough County, to come over and do a storm assessment.

It’s a free service available to any Hillsborough resident. She helps homeowners design, install and maintain their urban landscapes.

"First, I'm just going to do just kind of a broad look around,” Haddock said, standing on my patchy green front lawn. She faced the one-story house with her back to the street.

Haddock was looking for areas that tend to flood, soil that erodes away, or any kind of drainage issues that may contribute to standing water.

Corner of a gray car port floor where standing water creates a reflection of the white trellises.
Daylina Miler
WUSF Public Media
The home assessment was conducted a day after a strong storm left standing water in areas surrounding the house, including the corner of the car port. UF/IFAS landscape expert Susan Haddock said gutter extenders will keep the water from pooling.

It's a three-bedroom, two-bath, built in 1959 with floor to ceiling windows. On a sunny day, Haddock is partly under the shade of a giant oak tree, which covers the right side of my home.

“Have you ever noticed any flooding issues in this particular landscape?” Haddock asked.

I explained how the flooding tends to happen by the front door, pooling there.

“So evidently, it slopes towards the house. And that's something that you might want to think about … is to change that grade so that it slopes away from the house,” she said.

“There's a couple ways that you can do that: you can either re-grade the entire front yard, which is quite a project, or you can try to do some different things that may create a little bit of mounding in front of the house. I think that's going to be a little bit difficult in this situation because the windows are very close to the ground.”

Examples of mounding, according to Haddock, include swales and rain gardens. UF/IFAS has an online list of flowering plants for rain gardens: blue flag iris, goldenrod, swamp sunflower, spider lily, and milkweed. French drains could also help, said Haddock.

If I'm going to hire a landscaper, she suggested I make sure they have licenses and bond insurance. Plus, it's always a good idea to talk with a previous client for quality assurance.

“You do have a very large tree over a lot of your house,” said Haddock, her head tilted up toward the expansive branches and hanging Spanish moss.

A large oak tree, with Spanish moss dangling from the many branches, hovers over the beige house with white trim from the right side.  Green elephant ear plants are clustered underneath the tree.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Expert Robert Northrop, with UF/IFAS, said trees provide many benefits to homeowners: they increase property values and reduce energy costs. He said he considers them assets, which is why he recommended qualified professionals for tree trimming.

“It almost looks like it could be a historic tree and it's just absolutely beautiful. I would just pay attention to any kind of limbs that you see that don't have leafy material on it that may look like they’ve got some die back and have those pruned off in advance of the hurricane season. … I see one up over the house towards the back there that doesn't look like it's got any really good growth on. It looks like a dead piece. And that could fall off in a wind situation."

Luckily, I had already spoken with Robert Northrop, a tree expert at UF/IFAS. He recommended calling a professional arborist who belongs to the International Society of Arboriculture.

Gray shed at the corner of a fenced-in yard that's standing on a wooden-built foundation. Bamboo and other trees surround it.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Susan Haddock, with UF/IFAS, recommended calling a professional to thin out the bamboo and neighboring tree branches, which were interacting with electrical wire, behind the shed.

"And when they talk to you about pruning your tree, they should be talking about two different techniques,” Northrop told me. “Specifically, one called reduction pruning and the other one's called thinning. None of it is called 'hurricane pruning.' Anybody that says they're going to 'hurricane trim' your trees or your palms, you should walk away from."

Reduction pruning is where the crown gets cut from the outside, which shrinks the overall footprint of a canopy. And thinning is lessening the number of stems in a tree.

Back at my place, Haddock and I moved to the backyard, which was mostly bare except for a shed off to the right corner by the fence. I asked Haddock if I needed to worry about anchoring it.

“Oh, absolutely,” she said. “So, that is one of the things that you do want to be concerned about in your yard is to make sure that any kind of outdoor structures, that it's anchored down, and it's not going to get picked up and moved away. It looks like yours is sitting on a wood foundation. So, you might want to consider at some point having a concrete foundation with anchors in it."

Haddock had a bunch of other suggestions: I need gutter covers to prevent tree debris from clogging up the drains, and gutter extenders so the rain water isn't directed to the base of the house. And she also pointed out that my fence doesn’t have wind gaps between the wooden slats, which could make it more susceptible to toppling over with hurricane-force winds.

I probably won’t be able to cross all of this off my checklist before hurricane season begins, but Haddock gave me ideas about where to start.

Through elephant ear plants, Susan Haddock is talking to Jessica Meszaros who is looking at her and laughing with the house in the background.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.
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