Maintaining trees during a drought

Being as it has been one of the driest years on record for the State of Texas, homeowners’ landscapes have suffered. Letting your grass go is not a huge loss, since grass can be re-seeded without a huge cost. However, replacing trees and large shrubs can be very expensive. That is why some landscapers suggest making it a priority to save your trees and not to worry too much about your lawn.Bruce Kreitler, owner of Broken Willow Tree Service and a board certified master arborist out of Abilene, said the loss of the time you spent raising your trees and shrubs is the greatest loss. “If you spent 20 years getting your tree to grow, it will take you another 20 years to replace a tree you lost,” he said. Bringing in a fully grown tree to replace it will be costly and may not be possible during drought conditions.Kreitler added that large shrubs are difficult to replace since it is even difficult to find a large one in a nursery right now.A way to tell if your tree is drought stressed is if it’s wilted even in the early morning. “Wilting in the evenings is not uncommon, but if your tree is wilted in the mornings, then it’s dry,” he said.Defoliating early is also a sign of stress. Kreitler added that with one type of stress, like drought stress, a tree can become more susceptible to other types of stress. “It’s accumulative,” he said. For example, boring insects can get into a tree that is dry much easier than one that is not, causing infestation and disease in a tree.Kreitler said it’s tough to say exactly how much water is needed for a tree because it depends on a number of factors that can change daily for the same tree. Variables such as the current weather, the soil type, the type of tree, and the watering method affects how much water is needed and when. “When you think you’ve got it figured it out, it will be different the next day,” he said.Some general tips in keeping your tree alive during drought conditions include soaking the tree with a little water over a long period of time instead of a lot of water during a short period of time. In this type of heat, evaporation can be a factor if there is too much watering at once. “You can apply water with a soaker hose or drip irrigation,” he said. If you’ve decided to give up on your grass, Kreitler recommends temporarily installing a drip line just for your trees and large shrubs because drip irrigation doesn’t work well on turf and flower beds.Another tip he offered was in regards to injection sprinkler systems where a type of sprinkler is installed underground and water is injected out from the sprinkler in the ground. Kreitler recommended not putting them in the ground any deeper than six inches to water your trees. He’s known people to put them 18 inches underground. “You may feel like the harder you’re working, you’re doing something to help,” Kreitler said about digging deeper. “But at 18 inches, the tree is not helped,” he said. “It’s too deep.”According to the Texas Forest Service, drought-stressed trees may exhibit signs of “dieback or decline.” This means the tree may cope with a stress situation like drought by going dormant. Since the tree is unable to supply enough moisture and nutrients to its crown, the crown will die back to help sustain its root system. Although this could save the tree, it does make it difficult to determine if the tree has gone dormant to save itself or if it’s actually died.The Texas Forest Service states on its website that there are two ways to tell if the tree has actually died. First, if you break a branch or twig about one-eighth of an inch in diameter and it snaps and breaks like a dead, dry twig would, then it’s very likely the tree has died. However, if the twig bends instead of snaps, it could be okay. The second way to tell is by scraping bark from a twig or branch with your fingernail. If the tissue under the bark is green and moist, the tree could still be alive. “To be absolutely sure the tree is not dead, wait until the next spring to see if it sprouts a new crop of leaves,” the Texas Forest Service suggests.At this point in the year, one cannot depend on a big rain to save the trees in the yard. The University of Massachusetts Agriculture Extension office stated on its website that it’s not just total rainfall for a season that affects a tree’s growth. Even if the area received some large rains and brought the conditions out of what would be considered drought conditions due to total rainfall for the year, a tree needs more frequent rains during the growing season. “When defining a drought year, the pattern and frequency of rainfall are clearly more important than the total amount of rain,” stated the UMass extension office.That is why it’s best to follow Kreitler’s suggestion of watering a little for long periods of time instead of a lot of water in spurts.