Hail can heavily damage plants and harm animals if they are not covered or sheltered properly. Credit: Linda Swackhamer / BDN

With the entire state under a severe thunderstorm watch through 8 p.m. Monday, homesteaders and gardeners may want to take a few minutes to prepare plants and livestock for any weather-related dangers that could pass overhead.

Severe thunderstorms can contain heavy rain, strong winds or hail. On Sunday a severe storm hit near Eagle Lake with reported tennis ball-sized hail and rotational winds similar to a tornado, according to the National Weather Service Office in Caribou.

Monday’s weather was predicted to bring much of the same, including the possibility that some thunderstorms could produce a tornado. According to gardening and livestock experts in the state, there are things you can do to keep your plants and animals safe and out of harm’s way for this and future storms.

“It’s always good to have a secure location to put your livestock in like a barn,” said Colt Knight, livestock specialist with University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “For the most part, if you provide a good shelter, they are smart enough to utilize it.”

While the kinds of hail storms common to Maine are not likely to harm larger livestock like cattle, goats or sheep, Knight did say a storm continuing even normal size hail can decimate a flock of chickens or turkeys if they have no place to take shelter.

And that shelter should be sturdy, Knight said.

“Most of the time people new to livestock or people doing it on a small scale will have stuff thrown together or made out of pallets,” he said. “Chicken tractors especially can easily become sails so you may need to anchor those down if they are light enough.”

Chicken tractors are movable coops without floors. They are often lightly constructed so a single person can drag them around a yard or grassy area by themselves.

Last year, a lightning strike killed eight cows at a farm in Winslow, but that was an unusual occurrence, Knight said at the time.

Shelter is also important for crops, according to Brett Johnson, sustainable agriculture and horticulture professional at University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Some of the best protection can come from low tunnels, something Johnson predicts will become increasingly common in Maine as gardeners and homesteaders look to lengthen the typical short growing season in the state.

Low tunnels are short — usually under 3-feet tall — and use arched supports to hold plastic or other types of row cover over plants.

“Especially when dealing with sinds and smaller hail events, they can definitely be useful in protecting plants from damage,” Johnson said. “But they do come with a lot of consideration because you want to be able to remove the tunnel on really hot days.”

Since hail storms can hit suddenly, it’s a good idea to have some temporary plant shelters at the ready. Things like buckets, trash cans, cardboard, plastic tarps or even cloth sheets can easily be placed over plants and then removed when the storm passes.

But be sure to weigh or tie down your temporary structures so they don’t blow away.

It’s also a good idea to harden off any seedlings before transplanting them, even in midsummer.

“You want to make sure they have been acclimated to the prevalent weather conditions,” Johnson said. “Especially with plants that grow upright on long stems they are likely to break in heavy winds, so making sure they are nice and acclimated is definitely a good strategy.”

What you do after the storm is just as important as the preparation, according to the experts.

“It’s really important once it’s safe to go outside to go check on your animals,” Knight said. “Especially look for down trees or limbs because they can knock over fences, short out electric fences or break windows in barns.”

That kind of damage can allow livestock to escape, he said.

When it comes to plants, it’s often the leaves that are the most damaged by a hail storm, Johnson said. And the worst of that damage can come long after the storm is gone.

“The main thing I would be concerned about after a hail storm is it can open the plants to greater chances of diseases that proliferate in damaged plants,” Johnson said. “There are certain pathogens that are unable to infect the plant directly so they have to enter through wounds.”

Johnson recommends pruning off any parts of a plant that shows damage from hail or wind. But wait for dryer weather, he said.

“When I was in my master’s [degree] program I had a professor who would say ‘You always plan for the worst weather,’” Knight said. “That way when it’s average or above average you can call it a good year.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.