Cleaning up after a tornado or other storm is no fun and while the big items need to be left to the professionals and first responders, there are things you can do to clean your property and make it safer. I was lucky because the west Kentucky tornado barely missed me, although we actually heard it as it passed. There are so many that took a direct hit and their gardens are the least of their worries at the moment. However, there will come a time when shelter and food aren’t as much of an issue and as we all know, gardens help heal the soul.

construction worker and nails

Wear protective clothing for tornado clean-up

The first thing you need to do is dress appropriately. Heavy jeans and long-sleeved shirts are a must. If you have work boots, those are also important. Hiking boots are also good. Tennis shoes are not as good because you can get a chunk of glass or a nail right through the sole. If you don’t have any heavy footwear, pay attention to where you put your feet. Even if you do, pay attention. Metal spikes can go through even the heaviest boots as well. If you can’t see the ground for the grass, don’t step there. Thin garden gloves are also not ideal. Leather work gloves protect your hands much better. You need to think that everything in your yard is out to hurt you, even if it isn’t obvious. You don’t need an injury for your family to deal with along with everything else. If it is dusty or smoky, wear a mask. Even sawdust from cutting trees can be inhaled and cause health issues. It might be best to be proactive and just wear one from the start. Clean-up is going to take months, so prepare yourself with the safest equipment possible.

Made in USA buffalo leather work gloves are tough enough for just about any job.

tornado damage

Kentucky Lake tornado damage image courtesy of my friend, Sheri Thompson

Leave the chainsaw to the experts. You can help in other ways.

If you have fallen or uprooted trees that need removing, let someone familiar with chainsaws do this. I’ve heard of two chainsaw accidents already here in west Kentucky and news is sketchy at best, I’m sure there are more. If you’ve never used a chainsaw, let someone else handle that equipment. You can help by moving the branches they cut out of the way. If you have a pickup truck, you can pull the larger pieces away with a strap or chain. Just remember that the straps and chains can break and the tension on them will cause those tethers to whip back with a terrible force and can cause severe injuries. If you aren’t pulling with the truck, stay clear. If you are pulling with the truck, make everyone stand back at a safe distance. Things are bad enough without adding to the problems. Eventually, there will be separate collection points for plant and tree debris and for construction debris. They may be on the rights of way on your street, or could be a central point in a neighborhood. Make sure you know what goes where, because this helps the workers who are trying to remove it. Plant material and construction material is handled differently because of potentially hazardous contaminants in the construction debris. Plant material may be ground and composted.

pickup trucks after tornado

Kentucky Lake tornado damage image courtesy of my friend, Sheri Thompson

Tornadoes drop nails, glass and small things along with big pieces

Pay attention to where you park if you are volunteering or live in an affected area. We’ve heard reports that first responders are having trouble with punctured tires. Not only do tornadoes carry large chunks of metal and wood, there are smaller slivers of metal, chunks of glass and millions of nails picked up and carried for miles. If there is a debris field in your garden, it would do to carefully rake it after removing the large chunks. You don’t want nails, glass, shingles and wood slivers in your soil when you try to plant next spring. I know of some folks who are even dragging a large magnet over their yards and gardens. Definitely do not go barefoot! Remember your pets too. Make sure their area is free from hazards before letting them out to do their business. If you see a stray dog or cat, or pony, or cow or goat, it belongs to someone who is missing it. If you can coax it to come to you, try to contain it and call the local animal shelter. There are so many images of lost pets circulating social media right now it breaks my heart.

Here's a heavy-duty magnet designed to pick up nails, metal scraps and small metallic debris. It has a 100lb lift capacity. A church or club could purchase one and volunteers could sweep people's property for hazards.

tornado damaged church

Mayfield, Kentucky tornado damage image courtesy of my friend Darlene Wilkes

Pruning storm-damaged trees and shrubs

Many people had their landscaping obliterated last week. Mature trees were uprooted or broken off and shrubs were pulled out of the ground. Even the lawns in some places are just dirt now. It may be that you can’t go back with what you had before, as your whole property may have been forever changed. With the absence of mature trees, your yard and garden will be sunnier, possibly in full sun, where you had partial shade before. You’ll need to replant accordingly. If you have some trees or plants still standing, prune to remove broken or shredded branches. Mature trees may require an arborist to do this properly. You can damage or invite disease with improperly pruned trees, so be sure to consult an expert. For shrubs, remove broken or damaged branches yourself and reshape to a pleasing form. Always cut back to an outward-facing bud or branch. Some may benefit from removing about 2/3 of the top growth to give the plant a bit of a rest when the spring buds form. Also remember that nails and glass could be anywhere, so rake before you prune or plant.

These large bypass loppers can take on tough jobs and won't damage the branches they cut.

tornado damaged home

Mayfield, Kentucky tornado damage image courtesy of my friend Darlene Wilkes

Share your garden next spring

I know at this time, the last thing folks in this area are thinking about are their gardens. However, in the spring that will probably change. We’ve seen more people gardening in the last two years than ever before. And even though we have a long tradition of growing things here in west Kentucky, I’m sure we’ll have more new gardeners join us. Think about sharing plants or seeds with a neighbor who may have lost everything. When you divide your perennials next spring, offer some to folks who may need a heartfelt gift. Master Gardener groups could even organize a swap and giveaway day. Even a gift certificate to a local nursery is a two-fold blessing. It helps your neighbor and it helps the struggling garden center or nursery. If you can help by supporting local businesses, it keeps people working. Businesses were wiped off the face of the earth just like homes were and that means many people don’t even have a job to go to. Help your neighbor, help your community and even help the community down the road from you. We are all in this together, even though some were more fortunate than others. The sooner we pitch in to make life better for others, the sooner hearts will start to heal.

tornado damage

Tornado damage near Benton, Kentucky. There used to be a house on top of this hill. (my photo)

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