In the Garden:
Middle South
September, 2004
Regional Report

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The flooding from hurricane Ivan deposited a mattress in the tree on the opposite bank of our creek, giving a whole new meaning to the term "raised-bed gardening."

Storm Damage

What a difference a day makes.

The weather the day after the remnants of hurricane Ivan passed over Western North Carolina was crystal clear and sunny -- all the better to assess the havoc the storm wrought. And what havoc there was!

Our 7-acre property is bordered on two sides by two different creeks. Normally, they are pleasant neighbors, quiet and unobtrusive. However, the recent hurricanes have brought out different personalities altogether. First there was the remnant of hurricane Frances, with heavy rains that created a 5-acre lake on our property. Neighbors said they'd never seen the water so high.

Then 10 days later Ivan brought both torrential rain and high winds; at the height of the storm, at least six of our seven acres were under water, in some sections at least 12 feet deep. Our barn, which sits on a small rise, was inundated with at least 6 feet of water, enough to wash away all the tools my husband had carefully placed up on tables "just in case." No one thought the water would get as high as it did during Frances. Fortunately, our 90-year-old house sits on an even higher rise; although the water came within a foot of the foundation, there was no damage.

As you might guess, the gardens haven't fared very well.

What Survived and What Didn't
Sadly, few garden plants survived. If I can set aside my dismay and look at the gardens with a horticultural eye, it's interesting to note what made it through the ordeal. All the perennial herbs -- including rosemary, sage, and thyme -- are gone, but the more delicate-leaved basil survived. The zinnias are gone, but the cosmos plants, caked with mud and laying flat on the ground, are sending up brave little shoots. The cannas are already flowering again, as are the cardinal flowers. The lamb's ears are a total loss, but the echinacea is making a comeback. Time will tell if the roots of any of the other plants survived; I'll give them another week or so to sprout signs of life before tilling them in. I am guessing that it wasn't the short-term deluge that killed most of the plants, but rather the fact that the soil had been saturated for several weeks.

Avoid Produce from Flooded Gardens
Because floodwaters often contain pollutants, from sewage to gasoline to who-knows-what, most experts advise against eating garden produce that has come in contact with floodwater. All plant parts, including roots, may have been exposed to toxins, and even washing food in a bleach solution will not guarantee it's safe to eat.

If plants survive, it is acceptable to wait for new growth to emerge and harvest from that, but it is advisable to wait at least a month before doing so. When in doubt, just till it under. I'll leave my basil plants so they can flower and feed the pollinators, but I won't be making any more pesto this year.

Sedimentation
The floodwaters also changed the course of the larger of the two creeks, in the process scouring the banks of all the trees and shrubs and consuming about a quarter acre of our yard. The silty topsoil on the creek banks was washed away, and the area is now covered with clean sand. We are rethinking our landscaping strategy and might throw in the towel regarding our planned woodland "river walk." Instead, perhaps we'll set out some beach chairs and umbrellas next to the new gouge we've dubbed "the swimming hole," which was once a part of our yard. When life gives you lemons....

The gardens, too, are a lesson in sedimentation. Near the creek banks, wherever tall, sturdy plants managed to stay rooted, sand dropped by receding, fast-moving water gathered in miniature dunes. Further from the banks, slower moving water deposited silty clay. In the barn, the "flood mud" is a challenge to clean up, but in the gardens, it is symbolic of one way nature replenishes her soil. I like to think of the flood plain as my own little "fertile crescent."

The creek is still running high from the rains brought by the
third storm of the season, hurricane Jeanne. Fortunately, we were spared the worst of it. Still, it pains me to look at all the naked soil on the creek banks, so vulnerable to further erosion now that the protective vegetative cover is gone. We'll need some advice from the Soil and Water Conservation Service on how and what to plant along the banks to protect our little homestead from further damage.


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