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January 09, 2007 

Take Care of Trees Hit by Drought

The past two years have been unusually brutal to North Texas trees (and trees elsewhere that have been hit by drought) - to the point that many native trees that were beginning to face issues anyway just decided to check out of the hillsides and prairies.

Sadly, urban trees have faced much the same fate. For others, it may not be too late. Let's analyze where we are now and where we may need to be going.

Dieback from drought

Many trees lost their leaves prematurely. Some species (cottonwoods, maples) do it as a coping skill, cutting the drain on their dwindling water supplies. That's a process they go through every summer once it turns really hot and dry. Other, more dependable species (Shumard red oaks, magnolias, yaupons) turned brown and retained their leaves for several months. Those trees should never have been allowed to get to that point. One deep soaking strategically timed in midsummer could have prevented browning.

Unless you were sure a tree was completely gone when other trees were losing their leaves, you can't be sure where you are currently. You really won't know until spring. Once trees start to leaf out, you can assess their health and vigor. In the meantime, bend small twigs to see if they're still supple and green. If they're flexible, they're probably alive. If they're brittle and dried on the inside, it's time to start planning the replacement.

This is probably a good time to suggest that you bring in a professional. You may have a landscape contractor who does a great deal of work for you.

That person may be familiar enough with your garden and its progress to single out trees that need to be replaced. However, the ultimate in tree evaluation and ongoing care would be from a credentialed arborist. North Texas has some of the finest tree-service experts in the South. If a large and valuable tree is involved, they are most definitely worth the investment.

Ongoing winter maintenance

Let's assume you have taken good care of your shade trees and are just wondering what a gardener needs to do now that winter is all around us.

Here is a quick checklist.

Mistletoe removal: This parasitic plant attaches to the surfaces of twigs and small tree branches. It soon develops roots into the woody tree tissues. Left unchecked, mistletoe can riddle a tree and lead to premature death. Many species are susceptible, but hackberries and cedar elms are especially so.

Every winter, prune the young twigs that have just become infested with mistletoe. If you remove it annually, you'll be cutting small branches. If you let it get established and grow for several years, it will be firmly in place with well-developed root systems in the wood of large branches. To prune then would be disfiguring to the tree. All you can do at that point is to nip it back flush with the branch surface. Consumers do not have access to any effective sprays. Again, talk to your arborist.

Standard pruning: Winter is the best season for routine limb removal and tree shaping. Remember, never "top" any tree at any time.

Transplanting: If you intend to move a small or medium-size shade tree, do so now, during the winter dormant season. Dig carefully and cut roots smoothly. Take your time, and hold the ball of soil intact around its roots during the dig. Thin and reshape it proportionately to the percentage of roots removed. Water it regularly once it is in its new home.

Root pruning and containment: If roots are beginning to disturb your foundation or drive, dig a trench between your house and the tree trunk to sever all roots that are growing beneath concrete. Locate all utilities before digging to avoid unpleasant surprises. Dig your trench as close to the house as convenient so you can leave as many roots intact as possible. Insert a heavy vinyl pond liner 16 to 18 inches into the trench to contain further root growth. Do all this while the trees are dormant.

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