Hartley Magazine

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As Rain Falls, Trees Still Feel The Drought

Last year in July, the upper Midwest was in the grip of a historic drought. What a difference a year makes: So far this year, we’ve had about 10 inches more rain than normal.

The spring that came with the cool, wet weather was glorious (at least, for those of us whose yards and basements didn’t flood). Bulbs and flowering shrubs were spectacular. Roses and hydrangeas are blooming now, full and lovely. And the weeds are romping.

But despite all the rain, the landscape still shows the marks of last year’s drought. As I walk and drive through the area I see a lot of dead trees and shrubs and trees with wilting or dead branches.

In the parched soil last summer, many of the roots that trees and shrubs need to absorb water dried out and died. On some trees, the uppermost branches couldn’t get water and died. Other trees died altogether.

Even those that made it aren’t out of the woods yet.  It doesn’t matter how much rain falls if you can’t collect it, and trees that haven’t had time yet to regrow their damaged roots are still struggling to absorb enough water. It will take years for their roots fully recover.

The drought also gave insects and diseases a chance to pounce on stressed trees. There’s a magnificent old American elm across the alley from my garden that is suddenly dying of Dutch elm disease. And although the entire region’s ash trees are being overwhelmed by the Emerald ash borer, last year the damage accelerated.

After each wave of storms this spring and summer, the streets in my town are lined with huge branches and entire trees brought down by the wind. In many cases, they were probably weakened by the drought or by disease or insects. It’s a lesson in how important it is to have trees regularly inspected and weak or damaged parts pruned before a branch or a tree smashes a car or a greenhouse.

We had a huge old mulberry tree cut down this spring. It was hard to do; the tree had shaded our patio for decades and brought a lot of green grace to the yard. But there were telltale signs of stress and rot around the base of the trunk, and we decided to pay the price to be safe rather than risk having the tree fall onto our building, the neighbor’s garage or the nearby power line some stormy night.

In its place we planted a nice musclewood tree, a native species that, in time, will supply green grace but never get as big and menacing as the mulberry.

I’m watering the new musclewood from time to time — any new tree needs regular watering until it can grow a wide root system to collect enough rain. But that’s about the only plant (apart from containers) that I’ve had to water.

Still, I laid soaker hoses through my beds and around the bases of trees and shrubs just in case it turns dry in July and August. If watering is needed, I want to be ready to help my trees continue to mend the damage of the drought.