Not Quite Hail-Proof

@SantaFeNM 2008jun28LAH 124When I first saw the dark clouds building over the mountains to the west, I was elated. My newly-planted perennials were thirsty, and now I could let Mother Nature do the watering. However, as the cloud mass grew and darkened, I quickly realized that rain wasn’t the only precipitation I could expect. The rounded pumps on the undersides of the thunderheads—the bottoms of convection cells—meant hail was on the way.

Sure enough, the storm that day did major damage in much of Colorado Springs. We were fortunate in that we missed the worst hail, but with hailstones up to an inch in diameter, we too took a beating. While my husband stared dejectedly at our pock-marked car, I ran to the window to see how my flowers fared.

Incredibly, I didn’t lose a single plant.

Salvia 'Merleau Blue'_BlkForest-CO_LAH_5721Living along Colorado’s Front Range, we can expect hail. While none of my new plants would have survived the several feet of accumulated ice they got downtown, some plants are more hail resistant than others. I had intentionally selected species that are less likely to be damaged by a small to moderate hailstorm, and that restraint paid off. Now that a few weeks have past, I can easily see how my plants were affected—or not. (All photos were taken about a week after the storm.)

The key to hail survival is largely in the foliage. Broad, thin leaves (think hostas or zucchini) are vulnerable. The hail stones go right thru them, leaving gaping wounds. On the other hand, flexible, ferny foliage lets the stones slip through without damage. If you look at species native to areas with frequent hail—such as the short-grass prairies—you’ll notice that many have leaves that fit this description.

Achillea millefolium 'Desert Eve'_BlkForest-CO_LAH_5720That’s one reason I planted a brick red yarrow cultivar—Achillea millefolium ‘Desert Eve™’. Yarrow can be invasive, but the colorful varieties are much less so. I wanted something that could survive with a minimum of care and water. Besides, the flowers will look stunning paired with bright purple catmint, one of my favorite perennials.

Catmint (Nepeta) has small leaves that are soft but tough. As with yarrow, the hail stones slide right between them. Even if they are damaged, the plants are vigorous growers and will quickly recover. My Salvia (S. nemorosa ‘Merleau Blue’, above left) was just as untouched.

I had three new Jupiter’s Beards (Centranthus ruber). One suffered moderate damage; the other two had only minimal bruising.

Hail aftermath_BlkForest-CO_LAH_5726Hail aftermath_BlkForest-CO_LAH_5727






Hail aftermath_BlkForest-CO_LAH_5729Other plants that came through with no or minimal damage included my (not yet in bloom) bearded irises, hardy geranium (right), pineleaf penstemon, ‘Colorado Gold’ hardy gazania, Snow-in-summer, Veronica repens, Spanish Gold broom, and Blue Mist “spirea” (Caryopteris hyb).

Hail aftermath_BlkForest-CO_LAH_5722My biggest concerns were the pretty orange Geum coccineum (left) and my prized focal point Purple Leaf Sand Cherry (below). Being the smallest transplants (I bought 4-inch pots to save money), the Geum were most at risk. And with wiry stems supporting the cup-shaped flowers over a rosette of flat basal leaves, they looked pretty susceptible to hail damage. Sure enough, they suffered the most damage. Thankfully, it wasn’t fatal; at least they’re still green, if a bit beat up (as you can see here).

Hail aftermath_BlkForest-CO_LAH_5725The sand cherry also suffered some leaf damage, but it’s a big enough plant that losing a few leaves didn’t matter much.

Another trick when landscaping in hail-prone areas is to slightly crowd the plants. That way, they can support one another under bombardment, and if some stems don’t survive, there will be plenty more to take their place. Of course, my border being brand new, there is a lot of empty space. But as it fills in over time, hail will hopefully become less of an issue.

I had one other newly planted area—some terraced beds along the side of our house. Wanting low maintenance plant to fill space, I had purchased a Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) and some Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) plants. They were sitting in #1 pots on our exposed patio.

Hardy, xeric, and tenacious, Russian Sage is almost indestructible once it’s established, but I was concerned the potted plants wouldn’t fair as well. I needn’t have worried; the pots had been blown over but the plants were fine.

Staghorn Sumac can be extremely invasive, but that won’t be a concern in an isolated bed bordered by hardscape on all sides. Rather, I wanted it to fill in the entire area, and chose it for that reason. My decision proved to be a good one for hail as well. The finely divided leaflets suffered no damage whatsoever.

We can’t stop Colorado from having hail storms, and no plant is actually hail proof, but proper selection of plant materials will up the odds that at least some of your landscape will still be alive—and attractive—when the the storm is over.

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