Virginia landscapers meet clients’ needs in the wake of Hurricane Irene

Thousands without power. Impassable roads. Stores and businesses shut down. Branches and trees lying on damaged or destroyed homes.

A trunk of over 2 feet in diameter narrowly missed a car, but fell on a neighbor’s roof, requiring significant repair work.

This is how many Richmonders found their neighborhoods after Hurricane Irene blew through the area in August. Although the Tidewater coastal areas were the most watched just before the storm, parts of the Richmond area got winds as high as areas in Norfolk or down by the Chesapeake Bay. The combination of high winds and a deluge of rain eventually loosened roots of some of the old growth trees that had graced area neighborhoods for decades, and when the storm was over, more than a few homeowners found hundreds of pounds of wood lying on roof areas or leaning against their homes.

Monit Rosendale, a Virginia-certified landscape designer (VSLD) who operates Gardens by Monit, LLC, says one of the biggest challenges after Hurricane Irene was renovating properties where the removal of large-diameter tree stumps left significant holes in the ground.

This, plus the debris scattered all over yards and other outdoor areas, had homeowners, property managers and others scrambling to restore order. Amidst all of this chaos, the many landscaping firms serving the Richmond area had to try to maintain their accounts and get projects done at an expedited pace.

Trees hardest hit

One local company that experienced some of this pressure is Manchester Gardens, which serves clients on both sides of the James River. Owner Mary Petres says that while her company did not experience a disruption of services after the storm, they did have to do a lot of cleanup on some properties, which delayed other jobs and required more labor on some projects.

“It has a domino effect,” says Petres, explaining that along with changing dates for projects, her company had to deal with a lack of subcontractors for jobs related to the kinds of tree damage that Irene caused in certain neighborhoods. All of the company’s tree people were tied up indefinitely, and she recalls that finding qualified contractors to grind stumps or do other kinds of tree work was nearly impossible after the storm.

Along with scheduling problems, landscapers also faced some technical issues with lawns and other areas. While the average landscaping firm subs out tree work to specialists, they are left dealing with the spaces that the trees leave behind, and in this case, some of these spaces included a whole lot of square footage.

Monit Rosendale, a Virginia-certified landscape designer (VSLD), operates Gardens by Monit, LLC that specializes in quality high-end residential landscape design and installation management in Richmond, including the Museum District, to south of the river, and the far west end who opt for attractive front and backyard gardens.

One of the biggest challenges after Hurricane Irene (and Isabel from September 2003), says Rosendale, was renovating properties where the removal of large-diameter tree stumps resulted in significant holes in the ground. Rosendale says the largest of these holes created a “bathtub effect” that can retain water and continue to settle leaving depressions on clients’ properties. Since it’s not generally recommended to plant a tree where the previous one existed, landscapers often backfill the area with topsoil and overseed. The problem is that further root decomposition and settling can occur, and more filling may be needed later, says Rosendale.

Hurricane damage is also very emotional for clients as they deal with the loss of their mature trees. She said customers sometimes became impatient looking for attractive solutions to these damaged areas. “The repercussions can be long term,” says Rosendale. “It’s a process and requires some patience. We understand and help to repair the devastation.”

Elsewhere, in the heart of the city’s historic district, landscaping managers had less trouble. Tony Griffin is the capitol building manager, part of Virginia’s Department of General Services, which handles the landscaping for Capitol Square, a 13-acre area near downtown Richmond that includes the Governor’s mansion and other government buildings, as well as a significant park area.

City center spared

“It was a blip,” says Griffin of Irene’s impact on his department’s operations, calling the effects at Capitol Square minimal. He says it only took a couple of dump trucks full of debris and a regular day on Monday to restore that property to its former glory. While cleaning up Capitol Square after Irene required dealing with a few small trees, he said, the damage from the storm was nothing like the damage from Hurricane Isabel, where the property lost large trees and required more extensive cleanup.

This carefully cut timber will go to a local contractor for use in a kitchen renovation project.

While Griffin acknowledges his team dodged a bullet as Irene took out more of its wrath in southside neighborhoods, he says balancing the needs of the department with the needs of individual employees is always a big issue in the wake of a severe weather event, such as a hurricane. Citing more extensive damage in residential neighborhoods beyond the city, Griffin says that getting employees to work safely is always on his mind as the department calls its people together in a storm’s aftermath. Most Richmond businesses and government offices had to deal with the same issue, as individual staffers reported being stranded by downed trees, dealing with family emergencies related to power outages, or otherwise indisposed.

Branches and debris scattered across roads, lawns and roof areas kept local contractors busy after Hurricane Irene.

One firm, Harvey Custalow’s Landscaping, was able to solve the problem of under-staffing by teaming up with a larger company for three weeks or so after Irene. Before he hit on the idea of collaborating with his friend’s larger crew to bring all of the necessary manpower to his clients’ sites. Owner Harvey Custalow says his company scrambled to get enough boots on the ground.

Custalow tried hiring people off of Craigslist and by working with staffing companies, but was unable to find enough workers quickly. Helping his clients after Irene required a kind of triage process, as his crews first focused on downed trees, clearing driveways and roof or structural areas before dealing with debris and other secondary fixes.

“It’s a slow process,” says Custalow, who was monitoring properties and even unblocking local roads during the fury of the storm. Power outages added to the issue as some clients found themselves without phones or email directly after the storm.

One thing that helped, says Custalow, was that city workers were ready with their equipment, working quickly to take care of tree damage along roads and in other public areas. “The city was on top of it this time,” he says, adding that Richmond’s response to Irene showed the city had become better prepared for tropical storm damage than it was after Hurricane Isabel.

It’s now back to business as usual for most property owners and landscapers around the area, but these days, preparation isn’t far from the minds of most local residents and landscapers, since Richmonders got a crash course this past season in what tropical storms can do to the beautiful old-growth scenery and lush landscapes of the region.

Justin Stoltzfus is a freelance writer for various web and print publications. His work has appeared in online magazines including Preservation Online, a project of the National Historic Trust and many other venues. Contact him at