Hail Survivors

centranthus-helianthemum-penstemon-trio-003Colorado isn’t an easy place to garden. Drought, late frosts and early snow storms, soils of sand and/or clay… to grow anything here, you have to be stubborn—and so do your plants. Our recent storms were so destructive, I thought I’d post something about how you can avoid a lot of hail damage in the first place. At least for ornamental landscapes, the key to surviving hail is plant selection.

A tour of the garden after a major hail storm will reveal some plants that are totally destroyed while others have nary a bruised leaf. What makes some plants hail-resistant?

achillea_yarrow_dbg_lah_7629Look for small, leathery leaves on supple stems. For example, think yarrow (Achillea), not hostas, or penstemons rather than pigsqueak (Bergenia). These leaves and stems bend when hit by hail, allowing the ice to slide past onto the ground.

perovskia-atriplicifolia-russian-sage-csutilxeriscapegarden-9aug2006-lah200rJupiter’s Beard (aka Valerian, Centranthus ruber) and Russian Sage also fit into this category.

In general, plants native to the western plains are well adapted for hail, since it is such a common occurrence here. Some good choices include Rudbeckia, Gayfeather (Liatris), Rabbitbrush, and Blanketflower (Gaillardia).

liatris_gayfeather_xg_colospgs-co_lah_5722My husband made an interesting discovery after this last storm. His office complex is shaded by an assortment of deciduous trees and conifers such as pines and spruce. Walking into work the next morning, the ground was littered with green leaves, but only brown needles. The hail knocked the old, dead needles off the conifer branches, but did little damage to the green foliage. Including some evergreens in the landscape will give you something to look at while the rest of the garden recovers.

iris_pallida_dbg_lah_7604If our landscapes only includes plants with small leaves, they’ll look pretty monotonous. We need other leaf shapes to create a variety of shapes and textures. Grasses and plants with spiky leaves, such as Iris pallida, are also hail resistant. Their shape presents less leaf surface to the sky, giving the hail stones a smaller target.

Another gardening practice that increases hail resistance is to plant densely. Just as our friends help us keep going in times of adversity, having close neighbors helps plants stand up to whatever the sky throws at them. There is a happy balance between dense and overgrown; plants need enough space to reach full size without being smothered. Just don’t leave huge gaps. If you have slower-growing shrubs, fill in the space between them with temporary annuals and easily-moved perennials.

Sometimes, we have to compromise to grow plants we really, really want. We accept that their occasional loss is a fair trade for the years when they look great. Clearly, cost of replacement and rate of growth are important considerations. But if you just have to grow roses, for example, accept that the blossoms will be destroyed at some point during the summer (at least the shrubs will probably survive), and enjoy them while you can. And if we have another storm like the ones that hit last week—well, that’s gardening in Colorado!

What plants in your garden have coped well with hail?
Photos from top: Hail-resistant planting of Centranthus, Helianthemum, and Penstemons; Grasses and yarrow; Russian Sage; Gayfeather (Liatris); Iris pallida.

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