Waterlogged soils push out oxygen that roots need to survive. Every living cell in a plant must have oxygen or it dies. Some plants have mechanisms to provide oxygen to the roots even under saturated conditions but most of our vegetables and flowers do not. The longer these plants are subjected to saturated soils, the more likely damage will occur.
Usually, as long as water drains away within 24 hours, the impact on plant health is minimal. However, shallow, stagnant water under hot, sunny conditions can literally cook small plants, reducing survival time to as little as a few hours.
Vegetables: What about safety regarding eating produce from a garden that has been flooded? Standing water should not cause a safety problem as long as the aboveground portions of the plant remain healthy. Do not use produce from plants that have yellowed. Also, using produce flooded with water contaminated with sewage (lagoon) or animal manure can also be dangerous.
The safest approach is to discard all garden crops that have been in contact with such water. Certainly, leafy vegetables should always be discarded. However, you may eat fruit from such crops as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, sweet corn, squash, cucumbers, and similar vegetables that develops after the waters have subsided as long as the fruit is not cracked or soft. Always wash vegetables thoroughly before eating.
Lawns: Under the cool conditions of early spring, turfgrasses can often survive several days of flooding. However, during hot, sunny conditions with shallow, stagnant water, lawns may be damaged quickly, sometimes in a few hours. This situation often occurs when shallow depressions in a lawn allow water to pool. Note such areas and fill in with additional soil once the waters have subsided.
Trees: Trees differ markedly in their ability to withstand flooding. Some trees have mechanisms in place to provide oxygen to the roots of plants with water saturated soils and others do not. However, most trees will maintain health if flood waters recede in 7 days or less. It also helps if water is flowing rather than stagnant as flowing water contains more oxygen. If the roots of sensitive trees are flooded for long periods of time, damage will occur including leaf f drop, iron chlorosis, leaf curl, branch dieback, and in some cases, tree death. Another danger of flooding is the deposition of sediment. An additional layer of silt 3 inches or more can also restrict oxygen to the roots. If possible, remove deep layers of sediment as soon as conditions permit. This is especially important for small or recently transplanted trees.
Try to avoid any additional stress to the trees this growing season. Ironically, one of the most important practices is to water trees if the weather turns dry. Flooding damages roots and therefore the root system is less efficient in making use of available soil water. Timely waterings are vital to a tree’s recovery. Also be diligent in removing any dead or dying branches which may serve as a point of entry for disease organisms or insect pests. The following information on tree survival came from the US forest Service.
Trees Tolerant of Flooding: Can survive one growing season under flooded conditions. Red maple, silver maple, pecan, hackberry, persimmon, white ash, green ash, sweetgum, sycamore, eastern cottonwood, pin oak and baldcypress.
Trees Moderately Tolerant of Flooding: Can survive 30 consecutive days under flooded conditions. River birch, downy hawthorn, honeylocust, swamp white oak, southern red oak, bur oak, willow oak and American elm.
Trees Sensitive to Flooding: Unable to survive more than a few days of flooding during the growing season. Redbud, flowering dogwood, black walnut, red mulberry, most pines, white oak, blackjack oak, red oak and black oak.
After the Flood: Soils often become compacted and crusted after a heavy rainfall. This also can restrict oxygen to the roots. Lightly scraping the soil to break this crust will help maintain a healthy root system and therefore, a healthy plant. Be careful not to cultivate too deeply as shallow roots may be damaged.
These damaged root systems will make careful watering crucial. Watering will be needed if plants start to wilt after the soil starts to dry. This may come quicker than expected due to the damaged root system.
Kansas State Research and Extension