Post-Katrina Garden Rebuilt

Southern Revival

By Therese Ciesinski

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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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