Commentary: Tree damage from drought may linger for years

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Effects of the 2012 drought are sadly evident when driving by withered crop fields and bone-dry pastures baked by summer heat. The economic loss inflicted by the drought will be in the billions of dollars, perhaps becoming the nation’s second costliest weather-related disaster, surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina.

What is not so evident is the stealthy damage the drought has inflicted on the other stars of the countryside-- our trees and shrubs. If the drought doesn’t kill these plants outright, it will take years for them to recover.  And, once the rains return, you will still see drought damage.

Since trees and shelterbelts provide important buffers on most farms by providing protection during all seasons, their setback or loss may be counted among the major casualties inflicted by the 2012 drought. While crops may be at least partially covered against loss, trees may not be, unless specific coverage is listed in your policy.

Many disruptions occur to a tree’s metabolism during drought, none of them good. Extremely dry soil surrounding a tree’s roots can actually pull water out of the root system. Click here to read more on how tree damage occurs. Younger trees are especially vulnerable since their root systems are inadequate to sustain the plant during dry conditions.

Leaf wilting or drooping are visible effects of drought. As the drought continues, temporary wilting can lead to permanent wilting, which can eventually kill the tree.

While trying to water a shelterbelt or grove of trees is impractical, if not impossible, you may want to focus your efforts on saving a few favorites, or those you planted recently. Living in an area severely hit by drought, I am trying to save a favorite pin oak in my front yard as well as some juniper shrubbery.
 
The best way to water trees is by soaker hose or drip irrigation since most of the tree's absorbing roots are in the top one foot of soil, experts say. Soak the soil areas directly beneath the foliage but do not water closer than 4 feet to the trunk’s base on established trees, says Dr. Kim Coder, professor of tree health care, Warnell School of Forestry, University of Georgia.

Concentrate your watering efforts on the tree’s dripline-- that area located directly under the outer circumference of the tree branches. This area contains the tiny rootlets where most of a tree’s water uptake occurs.

Trees should be watered around this dripline, not by the base of the trunk, or the tree may develop root rot. Watering between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. is recommended as it reduces losses to evaporation and assures that more water moves into the soil and tree.

For newly planted trees, apply water over the root ball, as well as the planting area. Water trees once or twice a week. But, once you begin watering, continue to water until rain comes.

Depending on the drought’s duration, any effort and investment you make in watering your trees may be the difference in their survival.  



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