MASTER GARDENER — Dire straits crisis demands urgent action

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, September 6, 2023

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Readers, this past week I’ve received numerous emails with images of local trees and shrubs, which are literally “barely” clinging on to life.

Summer has been more brutal than typical with the hottest temperatures ever recorded in too many areas of the U.S., including our areas of SETX.

Now, compound the hottest recorded temperatures with severe drought conditions, which we are experiencing (rainfall deficit of 15-inches or greater in some areas), this could easily spell disaster for some of our most regal and beneficial plants-trees.

In fact, the soil in most areas of SETX is parched to the point where cracks and fissures have formed within our mostly clay soil. As the drought has intensified the cracks have continued to deepen, widening to allow even more moisture to escape the soil.

Many gardeners (me included), initially focused on our keeping the ‘outdoor carpet’ green, alive and growing. As the drought has intensified, local municipalities have implemented water usage restrictions that require residents to curtail usage and mitigate waste or face financial penalties.

Further, they have provided residents with clear guidelines for outdoor water consumption, watering landscapes and lawns to specific days of the week at prescribed times during morning or evening hours.

Walking around my property, I’ve witnessed cracks forming within the soil in multiple areas and decided, my focus needs to shift from watering the lawn to ensuring the trees and shrubs have enough moisture to sustain them and survive the drought and triple digit, searing daytime temperatures.

Everyone should note that trees and shrubs are our most valuable and important habitats for the vast majority of pollinators-they need our help!

We as gardeners must shift our focus to aid trees and shrubs, which require our assistance or risk losing more of them. Our area has repeatedly suffered through uncommon weather patterns; extremes which produce unexpectedly cold winters and intensely hot and dry summers in the past few years!

The stress of each season places an undue burden on our trees, which doesn’t allow them time to repair damage due to environmental conditions. The effects of these environmental stressors can and possibly will lead to premature mortality, at increased rates unless we provide relief.

Many of our trees have sustained severe injuries in the past few years and many people may not recognize the signs. Drought conditions are spreading across the state, and it’s not simply grass turning brown, our trees might be in serious trouble!

Visually inspect trees, looking for wilted leaves, leaves which are turning yellow and brown or have begun falling from the tree. Further, inspect the trees’ trunk for sap leaking from the trunk or discoloration as each characteristic indicates that the tree is severely stressed, and affected by the drought which has started taking its toll.

Know that all is not lost and there are ways to prevent conditions from worsening, even if rainfall isn’t in the forecast.

Even though water districts have imposed water restrictions to conserve our most precious resource-water, there are several practices each of us can use to limit water waste while also increasing soil water retention:

Minimize evaporation-water in the morning or evening.

Capture water into a 5-gallon bucket while waiting for the shower (bath) water to warm. Also, re-use unsalted cooking water.

Utilize a garden hose or drip irrigation system and reduce over-head watering by a sprinkler.

Stop fertilizing trees as fertilizer it increases water demand. Compost is the better choice; it improves moisture availability.

Mulch, mulch, mulch! A 3 to 4-inch layer of mulch underneath the canopy (critical root zone), will reduce moisture loss. Don’t allow mulch to remain against the trees’ trunk.

Leak-check irrigation systems.

Allowing grass to grow taller reduces soil temperature, the amount of water lost due to evaporation, and provides shade for ‘cooler’ root temperatures.

Do not prune trees and shrubs, since pruning forces energy to be expended to seal over wounds which is necessary to overcome drought stress.

Root disturbance and compaction reduces the ability of the tree to absorb and transport water. Avoid disturbing the soil beneath trees canopy (drip line), and don’t dig holes to water more deeply, it’s ineffective, which in turn allows the soil to dry out more quickly.

As gardeners we are all familiar with setbacks with the understanding that all is not lost. The horrendous fire which spread across Lahaina, Maui destroyed a town and killed many of its inhabitants.

During such catastrophic destruction and despair, a glimmer of hope. The town’s 150-year-old Lahaina Banyan tree was thought to be lost due to the fire.

A multitude of volunteers (survivors) have worked tirelessly, providing water to keep it alive. Recent reports show that there is evidence new roots are growing out from the tree.

Unfortunately, we must all face a harsh reality, our environment is changing with each passing season. No one yet knows the extent the drought will have on our area’s tree canopy, until it ends, and likely, it will continue, getting progressively worse before it is getting better.

For now, I suggest reviewing and ranking each of your trees, assigning significance and value, while watering each conservatively as possible during our drought.

So long for now fellow gardeners, let’s go out and grow ourselves a greener, more sustainable world, one plant at a time.

Send comments and questions to Texas Certified Master Gardener John Green at