Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Freak hail causes headaches for Sacramento gardeners

This hailstorm hit home.

Like bags of gravel dumped on our skylight, the sound was immediately alarming and undeniable. But this was late May – in Sacramento! How could it be hail?

Our California weather once again proved perplexing – and challenging to us gardeners. After coping with drought for so many years, we’ve found plenty of ways to still grow our favorites with less water. Late spring rain is welcome, but this unseasonal deluge brought more unexpected issues.

Two days after 98-degree August-like heat, fast-moving thunderstorms plunged temperatures to near freezing on May 20 and dropped pea-size hail on parts of Sacramento including my Pocket-Greenhaven neighborhood.

As part of an evening cloudburst, the little frozen nuggets melted almost as soon as they hit the patio. Half an hour after the storm, the hail had totally disappeared. But the damage will linger a lot longer.

What does hail do to plants? It shreds them. Large showy leaves appear to be the victims of shotgun blasts, ragged holes ripped through their foliage. Some stems are totally broken.

The roses? Dozens of blooms broke at the neck, dangling from their stems as if snipped not quite off. Torn petals littered the garden everywhere.

In the vegetable garden, hail took its greatest toll. Little basil and pepper transplants, just beginning to enjoy summerlike warmth, look as if a legion of voracious snails had attacked their tender green leaves. Holes are all over them; only the silver snail slime is missing.

Seedling squash got just plain smashed. That’s why spring hail can be so devastating: Seedlings may not survive the attack. Rapid spring growth is too tender to withstand such a fast, frozen onslaught.

Itty-bitty baby tomatoes – the ones I thought might ripen by Fourth of July – are now history. So are many of the tomato flowers, just beginning to tempt bees.

Nicked by the barrage, baby peaches and apples – those that weren’t knocked to the ground – undoubtedly will carry their hail scars as they mature.

The good news? Most of this hail damage is not fatal. The big leaves will grow back. The rose bushes will rebloom.

Those seedling casualties will need to be replaced, but it’s early enough in the summer season to still grow more squash from seed or put in more peppers.

Hail damage can lead to other problems. Nicks and breaks in stems create little wounds, possible entry points for pests. Damaged fruit can attract insect infestations.

Experts from areas of the country where spring hailstorms are more common suggest treating fruit suffering minor damage with fungicides to prevent rot from entering their wounds.

Damaged leaves and stems should be pruned off, so healthy new foliage can grow. A dose of nitrogen fertilizer will help prompt that new growth and quicker recovery.

Gardeners in hail-prone states try to prevent hail damage by putting buckets, garbage cans, tarps or tents over tender plants. But quick action is needed; these barriers need to be in place before the hail hits.

I’ll try to remember that the next time I see a menacing spring thunderstorm on the horizon. I’ve learned the meaning of “threat of hail.”