Hail storms can devastate crops and are particularly challenging for gardeners not just because of the direct damage they cause, but due to the lasting after effects, and accompanying weather.
No hail storm is just a hail storm. Hail storms are accompanied by high winds, fluctuating heat, and often unusual temperatures before and after, which makes it harder for plants to recover.
When we started out, our small garden was our pride and joy (it still is) but protecting it from hail was challenging without resorting to fairly industrial measures, so we thought it’d be useful to put some of our tried and tested hail barriers down on paper, so you can protect your small garden from hail too.
How to know when hail is coming
Any gardener should keep an eye on local and regional weather forecasts for accurate predictions for the week ahead, but hail is cunning and finds ways to surprise us normal gardeners and meteorologists alike.
One common sign that hail is on the horizon is a sudden drop in temperature, where cold fronts meet warm fronts, and moisture is lifted quickly into the higher atmosphere and below-freezing temperatures, where suspended water droplets rapidly freeze.
Just before hail starts to fall, clouds will form an anvil shape, with a narrow base and a clearly defined outward slope rising upwards. That slope is the cold front pushing the warm clouds up into the atmosphere. The sudden change in conditions within the clouds often causes thunder and lightning just before hail starts.
How does hail damage plants?
Unprotected gardens can be severely damaged by hail, particularly in summer when fruit has begun to set, and plants have expended most of their energy, meaning that annual vegetables are less likely to recover or re-crop. Common problems caused by hail are:
- Bruised fruit and fruit loss
- Snapped stems
- Damaged foliage
- Fungal infection
- Root rot
- Stem rot & southern blight
Hail causes damage to ripe and unripe fruit in equal measure, and heavy hail storms can even cause ripe and nearly-ripe fruit to fall from the plant. Even if fruit stays in place, being battered by hail caused tiny abrasions and bruises on the outer skin of vegetables and fruits, which can lead to infection both directly and indirectly. Hail damages foliage in the same way; bruising and tearing at it lands.
As well as knocking fruit from plants, hail can often be so heavy that it completely snaps the stems of annuals and herbaceous perennials. Outdoor tomatoes and brassicas are particularly susceptible to hail damage due to tender stems.
The result of all the damage is that the humid weather that follows will foster infection on torn leaves and skins, while the thawing hail around the base of a plant creates a slow draining puddle which can rot the base of stems and even cause southern blight.
How to protect your garden from hail
Not all hope is lost. Hail might seem like an untameable beast, but there are loads of ways to protect prized plants, and even your entire garden from predicted hail storms, with some methods that you can keep in place for weeks at a time.
The most common ways to protect your garden from hail are
- Hail netting
- Covered verandas
Hail netting is ideal if your produce needs regular protection, as it allows light and rain to pass through while deflecting hail from your most precious crops. We’ll look at hail netting in detail later, as there are quite a few different types.
Garden fleece, which you might already have in the shed, is a great way to quickly protect any plant. Simply throw some fleece over your plants, either in whole swathes or just on individual crops. Then, peg it to the floor to keep it from blowing away. As well as keeping crops warm through the sudden drop in temperatures, it stops tears and snaps as a result of hail.
By planting bamboo stakes into the ground around the garden, you can easily attach burlap sacks or sheets to create cheap and effective hail canopies that catch hail and allow it to melt through when it thaws for slower moisture release, which prevents stem rot as a result of heavy hail.
Awnings and covered verandas are useful too. If your garden is small enough then a single awning on the side of the house can be rolled out to protect your entire space from hail whenever it’s needed and takes up no storage space at all.
For smaller gardens with loads of container plants, move them under cover when hail is predicted, either under a pergola or veranda to protect them temporarily from falling ice.
The most effective hail netting for the garden
Hail netting is the most effective method of protecting full beds, greenhouses, and small gardens from hail, but there’s a surprising amount of choice for such a simple tool. If you’re thinking about buying hail netting, there is one very important thing to consider; strength.
For 99% of garden jobs, choosing a budget option is fine. We often use budget net curtains to protect the fruit from birds, but the weight of hail after a storm would simply rip right through it.
Good hail netting needs to have flexibility and a durable heavy-duty weave. Opt for polythene nettings, with multiple weaves and a narrow gauge between weaves to trap as much hail as possible.
To install hail netting over a small garden, choose a roll type that can be attached to a wall like an awning. Install durable clips to opposite walls or fences so netting can be quickly rolled out to cover the whole space.
Tip: If you can’t install whole garden nets, place stakes around the garden with hooks to clip hail netting onto when needed.
How to protect your greenhouse from hail
Protecting greenhouses from hail is hard. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, but there are ways to reduce the risk to your glazed garden buildings. Reinforced glass is obviously the best option for hail resistance, but it’s expensive and heavy.
Consider cheaper alternatives like 5mm Perspex, which can withstand the impact of hail. The downside of Perspex is that it can scratch, and become translucent which reduces greenhouse efficiency over time.
Where we are, we get regular hail storms, but hail stones tend not to exceed 5mm. To protect our simple glass greenhouse, we throw a few layers of garden fleece over the top of the greenhouse and peg it on either side. The fleece softens the impact but needs to be removed after the storm.
For serious hail storms attach a framework to the outside of your greenhouse, so it has four corners, and horizontal supports. You can then cover that framework with hail netting, which protects your glass while allowing 90% of sunlight through.
How to protect produce from hail
When it comes to protecting individual blooms, fruits, and vegetables from the threat of hail, there are some clever instant fixes that should be in every gardener’s arsenal. Before it’s too late, get prepared with some essential (if unusual) hail protection tools:
- Plastic bottles
- Empty pots
- BBQ skewers
- Plastic cups
The list above might seem like a shambolic list of stuff you’ve forgotten about in the shed, but it’s exactly that that you’ll need when the hail comes. Most of it is fairly simple; place upturned buckets and dustbins over plants when hail is predicted. Simple? Yes.
For show growers, growing dahlias, roses, or sweet peas for competitions, or for home gardeners with produce to protect though, there are some clever ways to use leftover cups and bottles to protect more sensitive crops.
- Bottles to protect individual fruit
- Row covers
- Move pots under cover
- Overturned buckets and bins will protect prized plants temporarily
To protect roses, dahlias, or sweet peas (or any prized blooms) from hail, tie BBQ skewers, or short bamboos to each flower stem, and secure it with twine. Place a plastic cup, or cut bottle over the top, and tie it in place over individual flowers to prevent hail damage.
For sweetcorn and zucchini and cucumbers, cut the base off a plastic bottle and unscrew the lid. Then simply slot a bottle over each fruit. The bottle works in two ways against hail; 1) the bottle prevents bruising and damage to fruit during a hail storm; 2) plastic bottles will keep fruits off the ground as hail thaws, creating a barrier against wet rot that can damage fruit after a hail storm.
Row covers, with looped metal supports and open ends for aeration, are ideal for intensive crops too. Simply peg your row covers in place and cover with hail netting or fleece to protect entire rows from hail damage.
And finally, gather all container plants and bring them under cover, including hanging baskets. Put them in a greenhouse, garage, shed, or veranda to completely protect pot plants from harm during a hail storm.
How to rescue your garden after hail
Once a hail storm has passed, and it’s safe to head back into the garden, you can start on the road to recovery. Most plants just need time and will resiliently recover in a few days, but there will be some damage that needs fixing.
- Prune any damaged, snapped, or clearly bruised stems and foliage. This prevents problems further down the line, as damaged plant material is an easy route for disease and infection.
- Harvest any damaged fruit. Even young unripe fruits can often be used in the kitchen. Green tomatoes make a gorgeous chutney, while young pumpkins and squashes can be grilled with their skins on long before they are fully ripe. Removing them now is better than leaving them on the plant to rot.
- Water less for a few days after hail as it can create a thick mulch of ice over the soil, which thaws and drenches the ground. The excess water in soil needs to dry before you water or feed anything to avoid overwatering.
Hail protection can be expensive, with good quality hail netting costing around $5 per foot, but there are budget-friendly alternatives for most small gardens that you’ve probably already got in the shed.
Whatever you do, do something. Small gardens are easy to protect from hail, but damage is more visible than large garden landscapes where hail damage blends into the background. Treat every plant as an individual to protect your small garden from hail, and you can’t go wrong.