Caring for Trees in a Drought

The summer of 2022 has been difficult for those in North Texas. We’ve had little rain and record-breaking heat. And the weather forecasters say that there’s only more challenging days ahead.

Bald Cypress in drought conditions

Are Your Trees Dying or Just Thirsty?

While native trees such as post oaks, cedar elms, and Texas live oaks are designed to handle the hot, dry summers, all trees on your property need water to survive and thrive. Water, along with carbon dioxide and light, are essential to photosynthesis. When water is lacking, a tree’s ability to convert light energy to chemical energy is reduced or stopped. The sugars produced by a tree during photosynthesis fuel all the biological functions of the tree. As energy (sugar) levels drop, a tree becomes stressed and begins to spiral downward towards death.

Signs of Drought Stress

Even if your tree loses all its leaves, it still may recover. Some species such as elms and mulberries will readily drop leaves at the onset of drought stress and produce leaves again when the drought stress is relieved.

Typical Indicators

  • Yellowing leaves
  • Scorching (browning) of the leaf edges or tips
  • Wilting
  • Leaves dropping

ISA Board Certified Master Arborist® and Tree Shepherds owner, Scott Geer, suggests a few tests. “Are the limbs still limber or are they dry and snap easily? If they’re still limber, then they are most likely still alive. You can also scratch the bark on small limbs to see if there is any green under the bark. If so, the limb is most likely still alive.” The ISA Certified Arborists® at Tree Shepherds can help you determine if a tree is still alive and provide a prognosis for the trees recovery.

“The most important element in preventing and recovering from water stress is proper watering,”

Scott Geer, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist®

Is my Irrigation System Delivering Enough Water?

Tree Shepherds strongly recommends a deep soaking of the soil with a drying cycle in between watering sessions. When permissible, do this 1 to 2 times per week.

Steps to Proper Watering

1. Water the entire root zone of the tree, not just the base of the tree. The important absorbing roots are out toward the edge of the crown of the tree. The tree’s roots can extend far beyond the “drip line.” Be sure to water the entire root zone.

2. Water deeply on watering day. If watering once per week, then apply at least 1 inch of water that soaks into the soil. If twice per week, at least 1/2 to 3/4 inches each watering, being sure that the amount soaks into the soil.

3. To achieve a good soaking, apply the water slowly or run through the automatic sprinkler zones at least three times on watering day for a cumulative of one or more inches of water.

4. Don’t waste water by running the sprinkler system too long at one time. This causes water to run off the property and down the street.

Testing Soil Dryness

Testing your soil periodically for dryness will help you determine if your irrigation system is delivering the right amount of water. To perform a simple test, the Texas Forest Service recommends inserting a long screwdriver into the ground. If you can’t insert it six to eight inches, then you need to water. Perform this test after watering and then a few days after watering.

“The key to the survival of your trees and landscape this hot, dry summer is proper watering. There is nothing automatic about sprinkler systems. They must be set properly and maintained.”

Scott Geer, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist®

If you are not comfortable with setting and maintaining your irrigation system, Tree Shepherds recommends that you call an irrigation specialist.

Krista White

Krista White

Krista is a member of the marketing and education team at Tree Shepherds. A lifelong learner, she loves writing about anything from Hemingway to Quercus macrocarpa.