Growing Concerns: Help your garden survive Whidbey’s wild winds

In Alaska, they call it a williwaw. In Australia, it’s a willy-willy. On Whidbey Island, it’s called trouble, especially for gardeners. Those howling gusts of more than 50 mph we experienced, this month and last, put a temporary chill on gardening fever.

As island dwellers, we expect wind damage during the winter. Who among us has not experienced a frustrating power outage, chased the trash can down the street, or chain-sawed our way out of the driveway? But at that time of year, the garden is dormant, and if we’ve mulched and mounded and put the plants to bed properly, damage is minimal, except to some unfortunate trees and the objects in their paths.

In the springtime, however, those wild winds can be far more devastating. During the recent storms, delicate plantlets, just emerged from the soil, were literally ripped out by the roots, as were many newly-planted trees and shrubs. The desiccating winds had the effect of a hair dryer on early spring foliage. The tender new foliage of roses was either shriveled or torn from wind-whipped canes. In my garden, several well-established perennials, including a favorite white bleeding heart, were split in two, despite a sheltering wall.

What’s a gardener to do? Plants exposed to drying winds should have a deep and thorough watering as soon as possible. Pay special attention to container plants and plants growing under large trees or under roof overhangs. Prune any damaged branches or stems. Since we’re entering peak growing season, nature will most likely take its course and regrowth will soon appear.

Plants that had newly established (or poorly established) roots torn out by the wind, should quickly be replanted and watered in well. Forget the fertilizer; what they need now is moisture. Sapling trees that took a hit should be gently staked and guyed until they’ve become firmly established. Then the stakes should be removed. If the tree or plant has been damaged beyond recovery, consider replacing it with a wind-hardy shrub or tree. Many beautiful native plants are well suited to windy conditions. I was amazed that a native currant in full bloom made it through our west-side squalls completely unscathed. Local full-service nurseries can help you make the right selection. Most even have special sections for gale-prone beach and bluff gardens.

Before the next big blow (and you know its coming), there are some things you can do to protect your garden. If you live in an area where wind is a constant problem, consider planting a dense evergreen hedge of native red cedar or big-leafed laurel, both of which are hardy and grow relatively quickly. These natural windbreaks stay green all year and provide privacy, but they do get tall and may require pruning. Lower-growing options include dwarf conifers or broad-leafed evergreens. Again, your nursery professional can help you choose the right plants.

In the windswept gardens of Great Britain, you often see odd, attractive structures called “hurdles.” Woven of flexible hazel or willow branches, these windbreaks are as large as six-by-six feet, or as small as needed to protect a single prized perennial. They’re set at an angle to the plant to deflect wind. Not everyone is a weaver of hurdles, but you can use your imagination to create a clever windbreak, American style.

Mulch is another important weapon in the war against wind. It slows the rate of evaporation of water from the soil. If the weather forecast says to expect wind, ensure that there’s a good layer of mulch (compost, shredded bark, etc.) on your garden beds and that the soil beneath it is damp.

While you’re out there, move your container plants out of harm’s way, perhaps into a garage or shed, until it blows over. If they’re too heavy to move, give them the extra water they’ll need to weather the storm. Don’t forget to take down the hanging baskets, bird feeders and wind chimes, too!

No, Toto, we’re not in Kansas, but the wild weather of Wind-bey Island can sure behave like a tornado in your garden.

Mariana Graham is a WSU- Island County Master Gardener. Contact her at

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