Joe Fichetola saw what was coming, evergreens first.
"They still almost looked alive in February," says the owner of Joe's Garden Center in Atlantic County. "With spring, they're coming out of dormancy and turning brown."
Adds longtime employee Joanne Chambers: "Now everybody in Brigantine wants shrubs. The ones they had, even the ones that tolerate salt water, got saturated."
As the first post-Sandy growing season starts, folks in and around Brigantine and Atlantic City - where ocean and bay floodwaters were the primary aftermath of the hurricane - are noticing which trees, bushes, flowers, and grasses appear to have survived. And which have not.
"A lot of people are calling and saying, 'My plants are dead,' " says Mona Bawgus, consumer horticulturalist and program associate with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County, in Mays Landing.
"But we tell them: 'Don't pull it out yet. Let's see. . . . It could be just the foliage that's dead.' "
Variations in depth and duration of flooding, elevation and soils, and salt tolerance of individual plants account for the patchworklike appearance of the emerging spring landscape.
Driving around last week with my pal Mike Miller, a skilled gardener who lives in Brigantine, we saw lawns that looked lush next to expanses of grass that appeared to have been toasted.
Seemingly healthy arborvitae stood near the seemingly deceased, and hydrangea bushes with black buds alternated with those bearing green.
"With certain plants, you're going to have to wait and see," cautions professional landscaper A.J. Faltyn, whose United Scapes of America has long served clients in Brigantine, where he lives.
"After the flooding receded, there was a large buildup of salt in the ground," Faltyn adds. "And it took a lot of rain to flush it through."
In the West Atlantic City section of Egg Harbor Township, "I'm looking out my window, and [many plants] look pretty bad," Veronica Monahan says. "They're a rust-brown color.
"Here on the bay, we got hit extremely hard," adds Monahan, whose family owns J&M Landscaping & Sprinklers. "We had four feet of salt water, and the wind and the salt spray were a double whammy."
Some residents spread gypsum after the water receded to counter increased salinity.
"With a lot of lawns it worked, but with shrubbery, it was hit or miss," Monahan says. "We lost six or seven arborvitae.
"But it looks like my lawn is going to come back, even after being under four feet of salt water."
As gardeners know, often plants that appear dead are no longer alive. But sometimes a dead-looking plant can surprise.
"Prune off the dead branches, and if there's still wood mulch around a plant [from before the flood], get rid of it," Bawgus advises. "The salt needs to leach out of the soil. And wood mulch holds on to it.
"Compost will help add nutrients back," she adds. "And nature is going to take care of a lot of it."
At Joe's, a business that's been in the family since 1957, "we had one customer who lost prize azaleas she bought from my dad 30 years ago," Fichetola says.
Sad stories notwithstanding, "we're fortunate in this area that we were hit by the eye of the storm," he says.
"All the damage in Seaside Heights and north of here could have been us. It's a few shrubs that died here. As opposed to houses being turned on their sides."
Contact Kevin Riordan
at 856-779-3845, email@example.com,
or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.