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Garden Soil

FAQ's About Drought

A Common Question (10/18/16):  Now that we've had some rain in the month of October, is the drought over?

NO.  Although we have had some welcomed rainfall, it was not nearly enough to get our trees "out of the woods".  The average tree can absorb 400+ gallons per day and it will take much more than a few days of rain to reverse the problem.  One way to see this is by digging down about 2" into the dirt.  In most places the soil at this depth will still by dry - a clear indication that our plants are not yet adequately hydrated.  Adding approximately 2-3 inches of mulch (starting at the root flare and going out to the drip line) will help to retain the moisture that has been added and prevent further evaporation.  You should continue to add supplemental waterings well into November.  We know not all of you are rooting for a snowy winter, but a good snow cover will also help insulate the soil and provide critical moisture as it melts in the spring.

A Common Question:  What steps can I take to help with the drought situation?

Click here for simple ways you can do you part to reduce water consumption.

A Common Question (12/15/16):  What should I be doing to prepare my landscape for Spring?

You should schedule a consultation with your arborist to discuss a strategy for 2017.  When trees are under stress, they attract insects that can further damage, or potentially kill your trees and shrubs. Having a sound, plant health care plan in place will ensure the greatest chance of success. 

A Common Question (2/9/17):  What harmful insects should I be looking for because of the drought...and what is their effect?

Lack of water (fuel) for the trees has weakened their immune systems, making them less resistant to any kind of insect or disease threat.  This, coupled with a drought-induced reduction in effectiveness of a soil-bourne fungus (known to keep Gypsy moth in check), has made the trees a prime target for the anticipated Gypsy moth outbreak - the likes of which have not been seen since 1981.  Last year (2016) saw huge quantities of the pest, and this year is expected to be worse.  Trees can often withstand one year of defoliation (caused by either drought or pest) but two years of both enemies presents a critical state of emergency for their survival.

The Metrowest and Western part of Massachusetts show the largest signs of outbreak - with egg masses covering trees.  Here's what to look for.

Yellow egg masses are often found extending up the base of a tree and in the "armpit" of limbs.

A Common Question (6/6/17):  Now that the drought has been declared "over", is everything back to normal?

The state of Massachusetts did declare that the drought is over.  That's good news!  However, homeowners should stay vigilant about the care and recovery of their stressed trees.  Think of it like dental care....(stay with us on this one) If you went for years without taking proper care of your teeth (the drought), then you began to practice better habits and gave your teeth the proper attention (end of drought), the health of your mouth wouldn't change overnight.  Time is needed to reverse long-term effects of inadequate care.  The key is consistency and proper care, which will bring lasting results and improve the "terrain".  This will help mitigate future challenges.

A Common Question (1/1/18):  What Lingering affects of drought may we expect to see in 2018?


The following article was written by FW Holmes, Director of Shade Tree Laboratories, Mass in 1986 - a clear example of history repeating itself.  It gives us some insight into what to expect in the coming year as New England continues to recover from an extreme and prolonged drought in 2016.  Additional information, supporting this article can be found in our Winter 2017 newsletter.

Analysis of the punch-card records that were kept by Shade Tree Laboratories (in the period 1954-70) for all its diagnoses of tree pests, injuries and diseases revealed to us that the second year after each drought a surge of troubles was ascribed to mild pathogens and insects of a "secondary" etiology or to injuries of civilization (like pavement-over-roots or compacted soil), and there were many more cases than unusual that were never solved and finally were given up as "unknown".  The frequencies of the other categories of tree troubles remained fairly constant.  

Obviously many trees are weakened but not killed by a drought.  Weakening may take the form of death of the tiny feeding rootlets, so that the root system cannot absorb enough water to support the foliage canopy, regardless of how much water may come to be present later!  Trees that have been weakened by one or another agency INCLUDING DROUGHT (as well as transplanting too deep, earth fill, cut roots, flooding of soil with water or gas, girdling by wires or by own roots or by rocks, defoliation by chemicals or by frost or by fungi or by chewing insects, etc.) then become liable to attacks made by a whole range of pathogens that seldom harm vigorous, healthy trees.  "Cytospora canker" and "Armillaria root rot" are merely two common examples.  These fungi can kill large branches or whole trees, but they are usually found on trees that were first weakened by something else.

An analogy can be drawn to the wolves that trail after a caribou herd.  Ordinarily they do not attack the healthy caribou.  But if one of the herd becomes ill or injured - weak - the wolves lose no time in eating it.

It is, then, no surprise to the pathologist (although it may well surprise the property-owner) that in what appears to be a reasonably moist season, following several droughty seasons, drought-sensitive trees like maples should look bad.  After all, they are subject to simultaneous attack, on the one hand, by the secondary disease organisms and secondary insects like certain bark beetles that can only succeed following a drought experience and, on the other hand, by the primary foliage-infecting organisms that only now can attack the leaves because of the current prolonged wet weather.

In addition to predisposing certain formerly healthy trees to attacks by secondary pathogens, drought acts also in the opposite role.  During a drought, the trees that are actually killed outright by drought are usually those that had been subject to earlier stresses from other injuries or diseases.  Trees that had been barely able to endure the effects, for example, of fill, of cut roots, or of pavement over their roots, etc., may indeed have "kept up appearances" during seasons of normal rainfall.  But they must succumb when a drought comes along!

 A common question (5/25/22)  What does drought have to do with healthy soils?

Everything!  Water is the key to transpiration and the life-forces that feed our plants.  Just as humans need water to survive, so to do plants.....and soils are the key to nourishing those plants. 

Just one handful of soil contains more bacteria and life than all humans on earth.  These micro-organisms need water to survive and thrive so that they can feed plants through their roots.  When micro-organisms are present, the soil is aerated, creating pockets through which water and nutrients can be transported. When soil is dry, its living elements die and the soil compacts.  Roots don't actually grow IN the soil, they grow in the spaces BETWEEN the soil molecules.  So, when the soil compacts, roots get choked out and there is no food to sustain them.

Check out these interesting fact sheets on healthy soils, created by the USDA.

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