Post-Katrina Garden Rebuilt

Southern Revival

November 26, 2010


"The live oaks saved the house," says Melanie Walrod matter-of-factly. She nods toward one of the massive trees surrounding her family's home. "Their leaves and branches deflected Katrina's winds, so we lost only a few roof shingles. Our damage was nothing compared to what others lost." Fifty feet tall and as much as 12 feet around, the five native live oaks form a protective circle around the house.


Melanie is talking on a sweltering morning in May. Around her, the Walrod family's garden in Delisle, Mississippi, is awash in the colors of verbena and late blooming azaleas. And it's vibrating with the sounds of bluebirds, bees, and three young children playing. Wherever you look, you can see all that John Walrod has done since he bought the 15-acre property in 1989. There is a Japanese and a moss garden, a large vegetable plot, a bog garden, beehives, a chicken coop, an arbor for muscadine grapes, and an orchard of 10 fruit trees.

This beautiful scene is not necessarily what you would have expected to find here this spring. That's because, last August 30, Walrod and his family had to board up their house, tie down whatever could be tied down, and drive to John's parents house in Arkansas to get out of the path of Hurricane Katrina. Delisle lay in the path of the storm's eastern eyewall-where winds averaged 135 m.p.h. and gusted up to 153. Neighbors who rode out the storm told John that seven tornadoes passed through their properties. Ten miles south, in Pass Christian, the ocean rose 30 feet over the coast, obliterating almost everything.

The flood stopped three blocks from the Walrods' house. Returning home two days later on roads blocked by debris and downed power lines, they were relieved at what they saw. Trees blocked their driveway, the shed had lost its roof, and the electricity was out, but the house, the chickens and their coop, and the beehives were safe.

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The Aftermath
Trees were the most noticeable casualties: The hurricane had snapped longleaf pine trees in half, uprooted some magnolias, and bent red cedars so their tops touched the ground. But the live oaks, denuded of leaves and missing some branches, stood.

The plant devastation and absence of insects would mean a tough winter for wildlife, birds especially. This part of Mississippi is on the migration route of the ruby-throated hummingbird. With their nectar sources destroyed, the birds had almost nothing to nourish them on their long flights. So the Walrods put out sugar-water feeders and were treated to the sight of as many as 40 hummingbirds feeding at once.

Katrina turned nature upside down in other ways, too. In October, spring arrived for the second time that year. Flowers and leaves sprouted; trees and shrubs set fruit. The plants had been tricked into behaving as if there'd been a winter. The show ended December 1 with a freeze. This false spring, it turns out, was actually a blessing: it gave migrating birds something to eat. "The fruit that appeared in November kept the wildlife population going," Melanie says.

The ground now receives more sunlight than it has since 1989. An eight-month drought has followed Katrina's weeks of mud, moisture, and mold. With less shade, this cool, moist garden became sunny and hot, and water-loving plants withered. Now exposed to sunlight, weed seeds germinated, and beneath a carpet of downed branches and torn leaves, the moss garden retreated into dormancy. With only 5 inches of rain since January 1 (normal is 60 inches per year), plants that might have survived the hurricane are succumbing to the drought. Compounding that, last fall's false spring tapped out the plants, reducing the amount of blooms in March, April, and May.

Now, nine months after the storm, many damaged trees remain as a dramatic reminder of Katrina's visit. John points to a Southern magnolia lying on its side, its branches like bicycle spokes sticking into the ground here, skyward there. "That was my centerpiece tree," he says. I've cut it back by more than half, mulched it heavily, and I'm watering it, which I'm not doing with other downed trees.

"I've also planted native azaleas and circled the rootline with rocks, to form a barrier for the lawnmower. It's the one tree we've asked the kids not to climb. It's got new growth." He will not attempt to pull the magnolia upright. "In ten years or so, it should be magnificent-all these big, craggy branches reaching for the sky."

John gestures to another native tree, a bald cypress. He is planting more, because they survived the storm. "There is a big push in this area to replant with native trees and shrubs, since so many of them came through the hurricane so well," John says.

He was surprised that one native didn't fare well in the storm: red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). A 300-foot-long privacy hedge of these 300-foot-tall trees snapped like matchsticks. Of more than 30 mature red cedars, only 2 or 3 are left. John attributes the damage to the tornadoes that tore through the area.

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The Restoration
In the Japanese garden, shorter, more light-sensitive Japanese maples are surrounded by taller red maples to keep their leaves from burning. Since Katrina opened up the tree canopy, the once-shady area has become infested with cogon grass. Listed as one of 10 international invasive weeds, it spreads by seeds and rhizomes and is almost impossible to keep ahead of.

The soil here is sandy, well-drained but rich. A weeping yaupon holly and a pecan tree were uprooted and now arch over rather attractively. John cut back their topgrowth to accommodate a weakened root system and mulched well, in the hope of keeping the trees from dying.

"The storm taught me that you can't rely on a single centerpiece in your garden," John says. "If you have one spectacular tree and it gets damaged, you have nothing. You need to plan redundancy into your garden."

The Walrods have not resisted the changes Katrina wrought; instead, they view their storm-torn landscape (and the accompanying debris) as opportunities to reimagine their garden, reuse materials that would otherwise go into landfills, and further protect and encourage wildlife.

A walk around reveals the many ingenious ways John reused debris from the storm to improve the way his garden works and looks. He was aided by a group of friends from around the country self-named "The Delisle Chain-Saw Gang" (motto: "We meaner than Katriner"), who arrived to help soon after the hurricane. They cleared downed trees and branches, assembled brush piles to create habitat for wildlife, and replaced destroyed structures.

In the large vegetable garden, a set of stump "chairs" surround a cedar-log table. The chairs are made from tree trunks downed by Katrina, with their bark removed. Since the bark from the tree-trunk chairs came off in complete circles, Melanie filled them with soil and planted tomatoes in them. They look natural in the garden and will eventually biodegrade.

When the original tool shed blew down in the storm, John built a new one, called the "Katrina Cantina." It's made from fallen telephone poles, reused roofing, and a door, complete with hinges, that John found on the side of the road. The compost heap is behind the cantina, so John extended the roofline to direct rain runoff onto the compost pile.

The "spider arbor" replaces one made from copper tubing that didn't hold up in the hurricane. The new one is made from red-cedar trunks and stands about 9 feet tall. The posts are sunk in concrete 3 to 4 feet down and the entire thing is varnished. Muscadine grapes are making a renewed assault on the new arbor.

While John does most of the ornamental gardening, Melanie enjoys tending the vegetable garden and involves the children, too. Each has a plot and can decorate it however he or she wants. Nicholas, age 5, practices his penmanship on a sign warning the chickens to stay out of the garden. Alexander, 7, built a bird feeder from a tin can and wood debris. Anastasia, 9, put a pair of worn sneakers to work as a planter.

The clay soil leaches lime, so Melanie adds compost and mulches with grass and leaves from the live-oak trees. Live oaks drop their leaves in spring instead of fall, and since the leaves are small and crumble easily, they are great as an addition to compost piles and as mulch. When the live oaks lost their leaves during the storm, there wasn't anything left for mulch. So Melanie literally pulled the needles off the downed longleaf pines and used those. She says they make a terrific, weed-free mulch that slowly degrades.

Hurricane Katrina wreaked almost inconceivable damage on the Gulf Coast. Yet it played one surprisingly hopeful trick. A few weeks after the storm, and then again in April, sunflowers appeared-thousands of them- everywhere: near the waterfront, in roofless houses, cemeteries, parking lots, anyplace there was sunlight. No one can say for sure where the sunflowers came from. For the Walrods, they were a welcome and fitting symbol of renewal.

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Vital Statistics
Location: Delisle, Mississippi
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone: 8b
First/last frost dates: Late November/March 15
Average rainfall: 60 inches
Amount of light: Sun to part shade, now Soil type: clay (with a pH of 4.4!)
Age of garden: 17 years Size of garden: 5 acres, with 10 more left wild

If Life Gives You Lumber... John Walrod's "waste not, want not" ethic went into overdrive after Katrina. "There's an amazing amount of waste here," says John, referring to how much Gulf Coast debris is being thrown away rather than reused, repurposed, or recycled. Here are some uses he's found for the various parts of downed trees:

1. Stack it: Large piles are scattered all over his property. They look like debris, but they are actually wildlife habitat, providing food and shelter for an entire food chain of bugs, birds, mammals, and reptiles. John makes them by crisscrossing large logs on the bottom to create hollow spaces and then piling smaller, brushier branches on top. The piles eventually decompose, become covered with vines, and blend into the landscape. They make the garden feel more enclosed and create vital hiding and nesting places for wildlife.

2. Save it: To save a fallen Southern Magnolia, John circled the dripline iwth rocks so the soil wouldn't become compacted by feet and lawn equipment. He also protects it with deep mulch and watering.

3. Stake it: John props up leaning trees with stakes made from branches cut from fallen trees. Using branches that fork, he cuts the bottoms at a sharp angle to make them easier to drive into the ground. He uses two or three, interlocking them so they stand upright and make a sturdy cradle for the tree.

4. Plant it: A tree-bark planter holds in moisture for thirsty tomato plants.

5. Trellis it: Muscadine grapes are just beginning to cover the 9-foot-tall structure the family calls the "spider arbor." It replaces one made from copper tubing that collapsed in the storm. The cedar trunks are varnished to preserve their warm amber color.

Plants for Gulf Coast Gardens
Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum). A native that gets to 10 feet tall, this is one of the few shrubs that will bloom in the shade of a live oak. Birds love the fall berries.

Bull nettle, or horsenettle (Solanum carolinense). This thorny weed, with flowers that look like oversize tomato flowers, is native to the southeastern United States. It blooms continuously until frost, and pollinating insects love it.

Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). Native to the South, this is a beautiful landscape tree, with large yellow, white, and purple flowers in spring.

Coral bean (Erythrina herbacea). This native attracts hummingbirds, and its root system is a large, water-storing tuber, making it drought-resistant. In warmer climates, it becomes a shrub, but in Delisle, it's a perennial about 2 to 3 feet tall.

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.). Besides berries, it bears white umbels, and it attracts bugs and birds. The Walrods make jelly from the berries.

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). John calls this the perfect landscape plant for his area. It offers flowers, fruit, and fall color. Melanie makes blueberry muffins and serves them with honey from the couple's three beehives.

Sweetspire (Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet'). Another native that's good for wet areas and holding back slopes, it has spring flowers and fall color.

Tree huckleberry (Vaccinium arboreum). This slow-growing plant adds an architectural element to the garden and has great fall color. It is related to the highbush blueberry, but its berries are not edible.

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