AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – More than 80 percent of Alabama is suffering some level of drought. Homeowners are wondering how these conditions are affecting their trees and shrubs.
Kerry Smith, with Alabama Extension’s Home Grounds team, said that although trees or shrubs may look like they are dying, they may actually be conserving their resources.
“In most plants, early leaf drop due to dry weather is simply conservation of resources. Most plants adapted to the periodic cycles of drought will survive showing minor to no damage,” said Smith. “If this is the first year that the plant had sudden leaf drop, there is a good chance it will recover next year.”
Smith said that homeowners should be aware that drought stress can lead to compounding problems later.
“Drought stress can weaken plants, making them susceptible to insect, or disease infection or both especially spring and suummer. Think of this like your own immune system. You are most likely to get sick when you are tired, or otherwise haven’t taken care of yourself near the time of illness,” said Smith. “Lack of water may be the trigger that leads to some trees dying, but most tree deaths will be the result of insect damage or fungi and other diseases.”
There are several steps that homeowners can take to see if their trees or shrubs are still alive. Smith said that there are two tests to use:
- The scratch test: gently scrape the bark on a small twig or branch with a dull knife or your fingernail. If you see a green layer, that’s a sign the plant is still alive at that time.
- The bend test: gently bend a twig or smaller branch. If this part of the plant is still flexible and doesn’t break, it’s a sign the plant is still alive at that time.
Smith suggests waiting until the spring to decide if a tree is dead or dying.
“If the tree dropped what looked like healthy, green leaves or you see whole braches that fail to leaf out next year, the tree may be dying,” said Smith. “If serious damage occurred to the root system during the drought, one of two things might happen. One, due to root losses, there won’t be enough food reserves for the trees to leaf out next year or two, the root system is damaged, too small, and unable to provide enough water for the new leaves to develop. It’s so easy to forget those things we can’t see. Healthy roots make healthy plants.”
There are some tips that homeowners should keep in mind when dealing with trees and shrubs during a drought:
- Using mulch can help conserve water. Any amount is helpful but optimum is 3 inches to 4 inches.
- Do not fertilize stressed plants.While we might feel this boost of nutrients could be helpful, this pushes the plants to attempt growth at a time when they most need to conserve internal resources
- Pine trees and most other conifers differ from broad-leafed plants.If you see red or brown needles covering a large area of the canopy, this plant might not survive. Many conifers do not show early signs of stress. When they do show these signs it’s often too late to change the situation.