Don’t forget drought-stressed trees

Published 12:32 am Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Everyone knows to water their gardens, potted plants and lawns during a drought … but what about trees?

Beaufort County has been fortunate to get a few passing showers in the past few days; however, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, we are still considered to be under a “severe” drought. So what is a drought anyway? A drought is a period of time when water is unavailable to plants resulting in a disruption of normal processes.

As trees begin to “sense” the onset of a drought, they react with their own strategy for survival, which includes:

  • Closing stomates in the leaves to conserve water;
  • Increasing root production;
  • Using stored food reserves;
  • Shedding leaves and fruit;
  • Sealing off (allow to die) tissues and organs that are unable to be maintained.

Many native trees are well adapted to eastern North Carolina and should have no problem withstanding a drought. However, a homeowner may want to keep an eye on drought sensitive species like magnolias, Japanese maples, dogwoods, beeches, tulip poplars and birches because they will be the first to show signs of drought stress.

Concerned homeowners may want to consider watering their valuable shade trees during times of severe drought. Before doing this, consider that a mature tree can absorb 70 gallons or more of water per day and the water-absorbing roots can be found in the top six to 12 inches of the soil. The roots themselves can extend out as much as twice the height of the tree.

The best way to water a tree is to do so slowly and thoroughly at least once a month. Use a sprinkler or turn your garden hose on at a trickle. Allow the area to become soaked before moving to a different area under the dripline of the tree. Avoid watering trees during the heat of the day to prevent losses from evaporation. Also, consider using organic mulches under trees. This will suppress competitive weeds and help conserve the moisture in the soil.

Jacob F. Searcy is the Cooperative Extension Service agent for agriculture-horticulture at the Beaufort County Agriculture Center. The information for this article is given courtesy of the Beaufort Master Gardeners. If you would like to become a member of the Master Gardeners or have any gardening questions, contact the Beaufort Master Gardener hotline at 946-0111 or email