Preparing Trees for Hurricanes

Live oak tree with many branches

Shade trees such as the live oak pictured here should be trained to one dominant trunk well up into the canopy. This makes the tree strong against the forces of storms.

Hurricanes and tropical storms hit Florida almost every year, often causing extensive damage to landscapes. But you can easily make your landscape more hurricane-resistant, so that it's less likely to suffer damage during a major storm.  

Selection

The best way to protect your landscape from hurricane damage is by planning it carefully. Choose species that are more wind resistant, and plant them away from utilities and structures. Select trees from the nursery that have straight (not circling) roots, one dominant trunk, and branches that are spaced apart from each other. If your trees don't have these attributes, they should be pruned so that they do.

A tree more likely to survive storms is compact, with a low center of gravity; a strong, sturdy trunk; and a deep, symmetrical root system. The native live oak is a great example of a "survivor" tree, given the right environment and care during its life.

On the other hand, a more vulnerable tree during storms is one with a high center of gravity, a dense canopy, a decayed trunk, two or more trunks, or shallow roots. Shallow roots result from shallow soil or a high water table.

Tall, slender pine trees that were part of a forest before suburban development are susceptible to storm damage. These trees relied on one another for wind resistance and support during storms. Without each other, they are unprotected from storm damage. Consider removing tall, slender trees from your landscape for safety and replacing them with trees that are known to be sturdier during storms. Existing trees with severed root systems from construction can also fail in storms by falling over. Consider reducing their size or removing these weak trees.

Remember that any tree is more susceptible to toppling during a storm if it suffers from construction damage to roots, poor growing conditions, small root zones, and disease or insect problems.

Planting

Plant trees from the "Highest" and "Medium-High" UF/IFAS Wind Resistance lists and match these to your site conditions. Give trees adequate rooting space with no obstructions (sidewalks, buildings, and streets). For small trees, there should be at least 3 meters by 3 meters unobstructed around the trunk; for large trees, provide at least 10 meters by 10 meters. Consider planting trees in groups as opposed to individually. This will make them more wind-resistant.

Trees planted in the last five years and very old, large trees are the most susceptible to hurricane damage. Young trees don't have an extensive root system to anchor them in wind, while old trees often have some decayed and weak branches. Large trees should be evaluated (checked) by an International Society of Arborists-certified arborist for defects that are not visible from the ground.

Pruning

Correct pruning is the most important part of helping trees survive hurricanes. Train young trees so they develop a sturdy, well-spaced framework of healthy branches along a dominant trunk. Maintain this form as far up into the tree as possible by reducing the length of competing stems and branches.

For trees larger than about 15 feet tall, hire a certified arborist to prune your trees before the hurricane season. The arborist will remove dead branches that can fall on houses, cars, and people. Overly long branches should be shortened and branches with cracks removed or shortened. Branches with the same diameter as the trunk will be shortened and the outer edges (not the interior) of the canopy will be thinned, making your tree less likely to be blown over. Low branches that are close to your roof should be removed or shortened, as well. Be sure to have your trees evaluated by a professional about every two years.