DROUGHT | Cities, businesses and homeowners scramble to save their trees

Drought transforms trees from green to brown to gone

Killer summer has been rough on area’s canopy, but it may not be too late to try to rescue some trees.

Updated: 2012-08-18T04:05:08Z

By ROBERT A. CRONKLETON, KAREN DILLON and ALLISON PRANG

The Kansas City Star

Bob and Trish Reed planted 50 fast-growing evergreens about four years ago to buffer their southern Johnson County home from the sight and sounds of traffic.

The Thuja Green Giants thrived — growing from 6-inch seedlings to up to 10 feet tall.

Christmas trees, meet summer drought.

“Maybe a third of them are looking like they’ll still live,” Bob Reed said.

The others?

Reed said with a sigh: “They’re crispy critters.”

This drought is a tree killer. One nursery owner predicted it might cost Kansas and Missouri a combined 1 billion trees. Other estimates are not so dire. But while savvy watering might still save a small and scattered forest in Kansas City, some portion of the area’s conifer and deciduous treasures looks doomed by this virtually rainless year.

The youngest trees are also the most vulnerable, meaning that much of a generation of foliage could wither in this weather. And with an economy in which homeowners and City Hall alike are strapped for cash, planting replacements could prove unaffordable. That, in turn, may leave a particular void in our lawns, parks and boulevards.

Kevin Lapointe, city forester for Kansas City, estimates that the city will lose about 7,000 trees this year, up 25 to 30 percent from last year.

Just look at the slow spread of brown in the public rights of way along U.S. 71.

“It’s hard to drive along 71 Highway and not see the huge amount of plant material that has died,” he said.

Fall colors can already be seen on trees and some leaves are turning brown when they should still be shimmering emerald. But just because the trees are shedding leaves doesn’t mean they are necessarily dead or dying.

“Don’t jump the gun on removing the tree,” Lapointe said. Leaves wilting or dropping “does not mean the tree is dead. If the limbs are limber, they could still bud out next spring.”

Bill Maasen, director of Johnson County parks and golf courses, said the department got “lucky” when it decided not to plant many trees this spring after their arborist had left and the dry winter boded poorly for growing saplings.

Yet in those rare instances where trees were planted — for instance, a contractor put in about a dozen new trees at Tomahawk Hills Golf Course, only to see eight die — the drought was just too severe.

“It was a good year not to plant,” Maasen said.

In Overland Park, which has earned the distinction of being Tree City USA because of its more than 26,000 trees, it’s too early to estimate tree loss, said parks director Greg Ruether.

Instead, city workers are scrambling to water newly planted and younger trees. Older, sturdier trees are pretty much on their own.

Naturally, trees suffer on both public and private land. Yet those planted in the rights of way, where roots are crammed amid concrete and asphalt, might suffer more from the drought than a backyard tree in better soil mass and space.

On the flip side, trees planted in public spaces are more likely to be native species, with the hardiness to withstand Midwestern drought.

Yet this year is testing anything with branches.

“The drought is being very, very hard on trees,” said Dennis Patton, horticulture agent for Johnson County K-State Research and Extension.

The harm of the drought varies widely depending on the type of species: Some trees have seen slower growth and an overall decline, others have not been so fortunate. The drought has killed them.

“The trees suffering the most are the evergreens, because none of them are native except for the junipers,” Patton said.

It’s not just this dry year that’s parching trees to death, experts said, but successive years of severe weather.

But this year’s drought just might be the final punch for some trees that entered summer already under stress.

“Really, for a couple of years we have been in drought conditions,” said Wendy Sangster, urban forester for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

That weakened trees, making them more susceptible to disease and insects. Making matters worse is the arrival this year of the emerald ash borer, an insect native to Asia that feeds on and kills ash trees. It’s been found in Platte County, and would be a severe threat to ash trees even in ideal weather.

Matt Stueck, owner of Suburban Lawn and Gardens, said many people will have to replace the trees they’ve had in the ground for five to seven years.

He estimates, based on the Texas drought last summer, that Kansas and Missouri could lose 1 billion trees this year.

Time to deploy the hoses. Water bills will rise accordingly, but Stueck said the cost of putting moisture in the soil will look puny compared with the cost of removing a dead tree. A thousand gallons of water might cost less than $5 and still be enough to save three to four trees.

Stueck thinks people will invest more money into restoring grass than buying new trees. That could send grass seed prices up significantly.

While trees might be in distress, there’s still hope. By watering them, property owners can save the ones that aren’t irreversibly damaged.

Watering depends on the type of tree. Younger, less-established trees usually need more watering and need it sooner. Trees planted this year, for example, probably needed 10 to 20 gallons of water every week, Patton said.

Trees in the ground for two to three years need to be watered every 10 days to two weeks. Trees that are 20 years old might need watering thoroughly once a month.

“The worst thing to do is to water it every day or every other day,” Patton said. “Water deeply and thoroughly saturate the soil around the tree and let it slowly dry out. And then rewater.”

Watering your lawn is not watering your tree, Patton warns. Instead, people should use a slow trickle of water coming from a hose and move the hose every 20 to 30 minutes to a different location to thoroughly soak the soil along where rain would ordinarily drip from the canopy of the tree.

People could also use soaker hoses left overnight to saturate the soil. Don’t fertilize trees during a drought.

Some trees give hints that they are suffering in the drought. Their leaves turn yellow and wilt or their canopy thins out. Other species, such as evergreens, look fine until they turn brown. Then it’s too late.

“The reason evergreens suffer the most is we don’t know they are in stress until they are headed to dead and dying,” Patton said. “You don’t get warning signs.”

The Reeds didn’t realize how quickly their trees would change from green to dead. Their trees started turning brown over the last two to three weeks.

“Brown happened pretty quickly,” Bob Reed said.

He’ll replant the trees — just not this year.

“My wife says it is sad to watch them grow from little babies,” Reed said, “and watch them die off like that.”

To reach Robert A. Cronkleton, call 816-234-4261 or send email to bcronkleton@kcstar.com.

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