All Dried Out: How to Care for Your Tree During a Drought

Everyone has likely heard of the ongoing drought in California by now. But, while that state is the hardest hit, prolonged drought is also afflicting much of the western United States and Canada. Absent headlines, early warning signs of drought aren’t always visible to the non-expert. As all plants do, trees need water to survive, and a drought can cause lasting harm to trees or even kill them.
 
Signs of a Drought. The damage can start long before any outward signs of distress appear. A tree suffering from water shortage will try to conserve moisture by closing leaf stomates, which results in undersized leaves, and sometimes yellow or wilted leaves. (Note that some of these symptoms may also result from certain diseases or nutritional deficiencies.)
 
Eventually the tree’s feeder roots die back, which compromises the tree’s ability to take in moisture and nutrients, and sets off a downward spiral. Opportunistic pests and diseases frequently attack drought-weakened trees, resulting in further damage.
 
Drought Treatments. The best treatment for drought damage to your trees is prevention. Good preventive measures are to make sure your trees are planted in well-aerated soil, not surrounded by concrete, appropriate for the climate including expected annual rainfall, and properly cared for.
 
DIY Steps. Here are some tree care steps you can take to treat drought-stressed trees even where watering restrictions are in place.
 
Mulching. A layer of mulch helps conserve moisture in the soil and reduces the impact of drought.
 
Reducing high-nitrogen fertilizers or cutting them out altogether. These fertilizers contain salts that can harm drought-stressed trees. Also, they encourage new growth, which is not desirable under water stress conditions.
 
Prune cautiously or not at all while the drought lasts. Remove dead tree limbs, but don’t cut any live wood until the tree’s health recovers.
 
Water selectively within the conservation limits. When you can water a tree, use deep-watering methods to reach the roots rather than shallow surface watering. This allows you to get the most benefit from limited watering.
 
It’s not over yet. Did you know that drought damage can last up to five years? Trees are robust plants and have their own natural mechanisms for coping with adverse conditions like drought, but that’s no cause for complacency. Proper care during the water shortage can make the difference in whether your trees survive or die.
 
If you live in an unfortunate area that either is in the middle of a drought or susceptible to one, contact your local tree care professional or arborist for advice on how you can care for your trees and plants during a drought or help take preventative steps.