By Michele J. Kuhn
The battering of area properties by Super Storm Sandy has not been just to beaches, buildings, cars and boats. Gardens, plants, trees and shrubs have certainly been impacted too.
“I think everyone and everything has been so astonishingly devastated,” said Leeann Lavin, a garden and landscape designer and owner of Duchess Designs in Atlantic Highlands. “For some of my clients, their garden was just gone. We walked into the yard … and it was as if Sandy – and Athena after it – just sort of mowed off the side of the earth.”
Since shortly after the Oct. 29 storm, Lavin has been helping her clients work through the things they need to do to help ensure their landscaping and gardens will return to their former beauty.
“I think the first thing is assessing what has happened,” she said. “Even last fall, right after the storm, I went to my clients to see and assess what the damage was… As soon as we could, we started with a seven-part cleanup plan that I put together.
“It’s kind of curious – here are all these tradesman going in to do the kitchen and the flooring to redo the house and then they look at us and say, ‘You know, I never heard about the plants.’ I say, ‘Look at the investment that the homeowners put into the landscaping.’ Plus these are alive, they are living things, they aren’t like a chair.”
Clearing the debris and sea grass that was deposited on clients’ property was the first order. Washing vegetation with clear water to clean off the salt came next. She then worked the soil with gypsum to counteract the salt, added lime to correct the pH plus an organic soil nutrient and then soil enriched with horse manure to help restore the earth. She also mulched.
“I think it’s really important for everyone to test the soil,” she said. Soil testing kits are available at many hardware and garden stores. Rutgers University also runs a soil-testing laboratory and kits are available from county cooperative extension offices or forms may be downloaded from the lab’s website at njaes.rutgers.edu/soiltestinglab.
Another problem Lavin has been dealing with is restoring vegetation that has become compromised by pathogens because of the storm. A lot of shrubs have been impacted, “especially you’ll see the devastation around holly. A lot has this Indian wax scale on them … You’ll see this around. A lot of pathogens have set in,” Lavin said.
The garden designer recommends that, as she has done for her clients, area gardeners wash their plants, if they haven’t already done it, and add gypsum to the soil. “It can’t hurt it,” she said. Then work to repair and nourish the soil after having it tested to determine what it needs.
“In horticulture circles, people often say, ‘If you feed the soil, the soil will feed the plants.’ If you do little else, if you get the soil right, the plants have a better chance.
“The other thing that is really, really important is that trees have been devastated.”
Some trees were damaged by utility companies cutting branches – she believes strongly in putting utility lines underground. Trees must be properly pruned, she said.
“I think we have a disregard for our trees; we don’t take care of them. Sometimes people say to me, ‘I can’t really afford to take care of them.’ I say, ‘If you don’t do that, you will pay somewhere down the line with higher heating or cooling costs or perhaps the tree will fall on a house’ … Much of the devastation was caused by trees falling on houses. The trees were not taken care of,” Lavin said.
“I look at gardens as not only art but as outdoor living,” she said. “If you are going to be living out there, you really need to treat the outdoor garden room as an extension of the home.”
She recommends gardeners look at the use of “good, native plants” and prune trees and shrubs during the next few weeks.
“I will be focusing, now going forward, to do an inventory and see what has survived the winter and see what is good,” she said. “I’ll make up lists … and see what can we do for the plants to help them help us.”
Lavin also favors gardens that can feed the gardener. “In general, I think we need to grow more edibles,” she said. “People have gotten away from growing their own food but it makes a difference to your health.”
She also is one of the many area residents who are happy to see spring return.
“Plants are resilient and hopefully, after the storms and the long, dark winter, everyone will now be looking for the spring and color and a happy time,” she said.
Lavin, who works in the New Jersey, New York and Long Island area, describes her work as “artful designs” that feature native plants. She has worked at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She is a painter – working in watercolors – and a writer of food and drink and is the author of the book The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook.
She will be appearing 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, at the Strauss Mansion, 27 Prospect Circle, for the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society to give a talk about how to create a kitchen garden.
Lavin can be reached by email at Leeann@duches-designs.com or by calling 732-500-7121.