Protecting Trees During the Drought: The Good News and the Bad News

The drought has taken its toll on Houston area plant life of all kinds, but the potential damage this drought could cause to trees seems to generate the most worry among residents. Despite the fact that people who have never visited Houston have the impression we are a dusty cow town akin to Dry Gulch, we have a tree canopy that would make residents of most U.S. cities green with envy.

The prospect of losing a chunk of that landscape to the ravages of dry weather is a discomforting thought and with reports that the drought could continue through next summer or even longer, we are left to wonder just what the ultimate damage will be.

The bad news, according to Bayou Region Urban Forestry Coordinator for the Texas Forest Service Mickey Merritt, is that what we are experiencing currently is already worse than the loss of trees after Hurricane Ike. "No matter if we get rain tomorrow or not, we'll see the effects of this for three to five years at least."

And the damage could be more substantial. Trees have not begun to suffer the effects of insects like the pine beetle, but Merritt believes that is probably coming.

Fortunately, trees in neighborhoods are faring better than those in public areas like Memorial Park thanks to watering efforts of residents. Merritt says the best way to protect trees is through deep-root watering, turning a water hose on very gently and letting it run on the ground under the canopy of the tree for two hours. This method causes little to no water evaporation or runoff, making it cheaper and more effective than aboveground sprinkler systems.

For trees that have turned brown with all their leaves still on, they are beyond saving. "If a pine tree browns out, it's dead," Merritt said. But, if a tree is losing its leaves, that doesn't necessarily mean it is dead or dying. "Trees with leaves falling we think will come back next year," he said.

Merritt said that which trees are doing better depends on the species. Live oaks, for example, are doing better than red oaks, water oaks and willow oaks, which are suffering. "A lot of it has to do with the health of the tress going into the drought," he said.

Despite the loss of a substantial number of trees inside Memorial Park, the loss of larger trees might actually benefit the park in the long run, allowing trees of different ages and sizes to grow where mostly pine trees of a similar age have been until now.

But Merritt cautions that it is too soon to know the long-term impacts of the continuing drought and until we get some substantial rain, the problems will persist. "It's a natural process and something we're all going to have to get through as best we can."

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