Creating Resilient Landscapes

Ten months after Hurricane Ian, what’s changing in landscape design?

By Donna Clapp
From the August 2023 Issue


When Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida in September of last year, it uncovered all the vulnerabilities of the area’s electrical grid, water management systems, and certainly the way landscaping elements can help or hurt a property in terms of flooding and wind protection. The devastation of places like Sanibel Island and Fort Myers Beach simply can’t be viewed today without noting the absence of trees, bushes, and plants. The remaining mansions on Sanibel are laid bare, after years of being completely hidden by lavishly green landscape privacy elements. As the area rebuilds, the most important topic now being discussed is creating resilient landscapes.

Resilient Landscapes
Babcock Ranch at sunset. The community sits just 30′ above sea level. (Credit: Babcock Ranch)

Babcock Ranch

“It just doesn’t make sense to rebuild the same way every time, knowing that the next time a storm comes by, we end up in the same place,” says Sydney Kitson, the developer of Babcock Ranch, an 18,000-acre community in southwest Florida that made national headlines when it literally powered through Ian without ever losing electricity, drinking water, or even Internet. The reason? As an environmentally friendly, fully sustainable small town, Babcock Ranch was designed and engineered specifically for hurricane resilience from the onset. Among other innovations, it runs off 700,000 solar panels combined with underground utilities. “When you fight Mother Nature and you don’t do it right, Mother Nature’s going to win every time,” asserts Kitson.

“When you fight Mother Nature and you don’t do it right, Mother Nature’s going to win every time.”

— Sydney Kitson,
Babcock Ranch

Babcock’s philosophy also applies to its landscaping. Babcock Ranch sits 30′ above sea level, and Kitson credits their well-designed stormwater system, Babcock’s own water utility, and the native plants Babcock landscapers must install with preventing the flooding that ruined much of the surrounding communities’ landscapes. In terms of stormwater management, Babcock Ranch invested in creating wetlands, retention ponds, and rain gardens that mimic natural ecosystems. For example, all the retention ponds at Babcock Ranch were built so if they overflow, water is directed between houses, flooding roads instead of homes.

“Ian was the barometer of our idealistic vision, proving that designing resilience and sustainability into the foundation of a community works,” says Kitson. “Babcock Ranch is now championed as a town of the future by proponents of climate resilience.” In fact, it won this year’s prestigious international Edison Award for Resilience in Design.

Barriers Bore The Brunt

While Babcock Ranch was designed to withstand extreme storm events, barrier islands such as Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach worked as Nature intended, absorbing the brunt of Hurricane Ian to protect the mainland. With gusts of 150 miles per hour, sustained winds of six to eight hours, and 18′ storm surge, Ian took its toll on landscaping all over Southwest Florida, but the trees, shrubs, and sea grasses of Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach were totally devastated.

“We’re still learning what’s going to survive and what’s not going to survive,” says Bob Walsh, owner of R.S. Walsh Landscaping Inc., an award-winning full service landscape design-build company on Sanibel Island. “Every day it’s a brand new thing. A lot of things we thought would survive are suddenly dying back. For example, after the first three months, all the royal palms started putting on new tops. All the coconut palms started putting on new tops. All the leaves started coming back on a lot of the shade trees. And then, a month later, they all started wilting out and dying.”

He continues, “We were drenching the buds of the palms and doing everything we could. But we just stayed right in the eye of that storm for so long. So now, after we’ve already relandscaped so many of the homes, we are having more of those large trees die, and we’ve discovered that the sustained wind broke the heart of the tree way down deep inside it.”

On Sanibel, the storm surge destroyed almost every plant—both exotics and natives. It was not selective. In many cases, it was the long exposure to salt water that killed many plants. Sea oats were the most hardy. Though they were rolled up like huge carpets on the beach, they slowed the surge down a bit, many believe. Large areas of matted roots, crucially important to beach conservation because they stabilize sand, lay exposed after Ian.

Resilient Landscapes
Native grasses are more resilient in storms. (Credit: Babcock Ranch)

Resilient Landscapes: Lessons Learned

While it’s impossible to design a landscape to withstand a Category 4 hurricane, Ian did (unfortunately) provide a valuable “worst case scenario” in which to examine the success or failure of certain plants and practices. As weather extremes become more common, landscapers will increasingly rely on these lessons to help design better resilience into landscapes.

Rethinking rain gardens. One lesson relates to the design of stormwater retention areas, says Walsh. As an island surrounded by Gulf waters, Sanibel properties must have berms that run around a site with retention areas to capture stormwater as well as fertilizer or pesticide runoff. The idea is to filter the water before it drains to neighboring sites, the Gulf, or into aquifers under the island.

Property owners don’t always like the appearance of these retention ponds, so for years R.S. Walsh has been transforming them into attractive rain gardens planted with cabbage palms, green buttonwoods, blue flag iris, and yellow canna lilies. But those rain gardens were typically designed for three or four inches of water, which drains away fairly quickly. During Ian, the 18′ storm surge overwhelmed these rain gardens, leaving plants soaking for weeks in Gulf salt water and universally killing them all.

“We will still plant rain gardens in the retention ponds on people’s property, but we are designing them a little differently this time around,” says Walsh. “There are plenty of plants that like to have wet feet. But what we are doing is planting the larger trees around the outside of the pond, not in the middle of it like we used to. In the middle, we will still plant plenty of canna lilies, and ferns, like leather ferns, and things that if they perish you can repair fairly quickly.”

Avoiding plant monoculture. Sanibel residents really like their privacy—particularly areas created naturally with green buffers. Over the years, certain plants became popular for this function, with many privacy buffers created using a single species of plant. The problem was if that species couldn’t handle the storm, the entire buffer died, pointed out Walsh.

“Areca palms are a very common and inexpensive buffer that’s been used for years, but they really did not do well in this storm,” he says. “If you had a long straight hedge of a hundred Areca palms, and every one of them died, then you have to replace the entire buffer.”

“We are developing our new designs utilizing plants and trees that survived the best. We continue to include a tremendous amount of diversity in our plant palette.”

— Bob Walsh,
R.S. Walsh Landscaping

Now, R.S. Walsh is coming up with new buffer solutions based on Ian’s aftermath. “Our new buffer designs have a large diversity of different types of native plants. By bringing more diversity into our landscape design, then if you have a storm and one type of plant doesn’t do well, the others will survive. Then you only have to replace one or two types of plants in the buffer or landscape. We are developing our new designs utilizing plants and trees that survived the best. We continue to include a tremendous amount of diversity in our plant palette.”

Allowing trees to topple. Grant O’Donnell is the operations manager for O’Donnell Landscapes, which provides landscape installation services for the town of Babcock Ranch. One of the ways his company minimized damage to newer landscape installations before the storm was by removing all tree and palm bracing and staking before the storm hit. By doing so, trees and palms could be toppled over by the high winds instead of being snapped in half above the bracing.

“This approach enabled our restoration teams to easily re-erect the palms and trees after the storm passed,” says O’Donnell, “which was a cost-effective solution for our clients compared to the complete replacement of numerous destroyed trees and palms. Structural damage to the canopy was minimized, and it was merely a matter of uprighting trees and repositioning the soil around the root ball.”

Using native plants. Both R.S. Walsh and Babcock Ranch use native plants as a way to conserve water, reduce fertilizer and pesticide use, and promote healthy landscapes. Yet not surprisingly, landscapes featuring native plants also tend to be more resilient. It just makes sense, since native plants are the original flora adapted to the local environment over many years. As mentioned, Kitson credits native plants as a factor in the community faring well during Ian.

At Babcock they found most native palms, like sabal or cabbage, withstood the storm well. And native plants, unless uprooted or submerged in saltwater, exhibited surprising resilience. Native grasses such as muhly, spartina, and fakahatchee proved exceptionally resilient to storms.

Yet “the resiliency of native plant material is only one of the reasons that Babcock Ranch has such stringent native plant requirements,” says O’Donnell. “We work with Nature to create beautiful, sustainable landscapes that are married seamlessly to adjacent undeveloped tracts of preserve and wetlands. It’s almost as if the finished product of every street and every community were somehow carved out of what Nature provided initially, with minimal disturbance to the natural ecosystem.”

Resilient Landscapes
Typically lush plantings on Sanibel create privacy. (Credit: R.S. Walsh)

Future Planning

Overall, both companies agree you can’t base all future landscaping on a “storm of the century.” But you can take into account what showed resiliency and what didn’t. “If your entire design palette is based on only what survived the storm surge and 150 mph sustained winds, you would be doing only sea oat gardens,” says Walsh. “But we are working with the best information we have to implement resiliency in our landscape with proper planting of resilient plants and trees.”

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This knowledge comes in particularly handy since RS Walsh is also contracted to maintain some of the vegetation used for beach conservation. “We are preparing for the beach restoration and vegetation to help hold on to the sand during a storm and break up the storm surge,” says Walsh. “We are [also] developing a plan for a more resilient, sustainable showcase of trees, shrubs, and materials to provide great choices for our clients to make their garden one that will last and give them years of enjoyment.”

O’Donnell comments, “As plant enthusiasts, we believe every plant has its rightful place in the cultivated landscape. Therefore, labeling any plant as ‘not resilient’ or excluding it from our landscape installations is challenging.”

Instead, he says, “We prioritize using quality plant materials, proper installation techniques, and timely restoration to minimize the challenges associated with storm recovery. Our approach incorporates native materials and practical design practices to create resilient landscapes. This involves selecting resilient plants, ensuring proper installation, and promptly restoring storm damage. Our commitment to storm resilience is ingrained in our landscape planning and design processes, aiming to maintain Babcock Ranch’s distinctive character while adapting to future weather challenges.”

Donna Clapp

Clapp has more than 35 years experience in media and publishing and is a former Editor-In-Chief at Turf ’s sister publication, Business Facilities. With a Master of Media Arts from the New School, she is president of Visitivity Media in Ft. Myers, FL, specializing in video and digital marketing.

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