What You Must Do Now if it’s not too late.

By: Lauretta James, Energy and Environment Committee, City of Medford

Many of our trees are dying from environmental conditions; their roots are burning up from lack of water.  This started last fall with long mild temperatures through December, followed by the abrupt arrival of winter in January and not enough snowfall to give trees a slow long melting drink. Spring temperatures were unseasonably dry and warm. Many fruit and nut trees like pears and peaches did not flower properly. Maples and other tree varieties also suffered. You can see the damage when looking at tree tips and their leaves; brown crumpled leaves in early August, branches drooping, branch tips and leaf edges are curling up and drying out.  Soil has compacted and turned to dust. Some trees planted deep inside yards and close together have more protection and look better than trees close to sidewalks. The extreme summer heat came off the sidewalks into the evening hours and radiated up into the trees and dried them out. Add to that the extreme lack of rain; tree roots are searching for a drink of water and there is none.

In addition; plants and gardens have dried up. My rows of purple asters are all burnt and other wild flower plants did not produce seed pods. Bees accustomed to these will find no food. Gardeners have told me the wild animals, starving and thirsty, have eaten their garden vegetables including green beans, leaving little of their gardens.

Lots of people are calling their Arborists and asking for advice because they see the destruction going on and getting worse by the week. The City of Cambridge has signal message boards lit-up in areas around town stating, “Please, be a friend and water a city tree”.  The Sunday Globe front page 8/28 article talks about the drought and how this is killing animals, fish, turtles, butterflies, bees and more. I did not see any mention of our trees at all so I hope to inform and share my knowledge from my first-hand experience and speaking with many others concerned about our tree health.

The damage from this year’s extreme drought (8” – 11” less rain) will be seen within the next two years with massive die-off of trees. I’m hoping Murphy’s Law kicks in this week as I write this and it rains slow and for a long time.  Imagine all our city and historic trees dying.  In our lifetime we may never see large trees replaced since they take decades to grow.

The results may be devastating and irreparable. We will have hotter summers since trees provide cooling shade and filter the air that we breathe and provide oxygen we need to live. Their root systems prevent flooding and filter run-off and help prevent water pollution.  Lack of fruit and nut trees = no blossoms for the butterfly and bee food they provide, no fruit for man or wild animals and birds. Lack of Maple Trees = no maple syrup. The birds will have to fight for what’s little left for their tree homes. That’s just a few of the effects and the cost to replace if possible will be extremely high.

The Top 22 Benefits of Trees

Last week, I called my Certified Arborist because my tree looks so very bad and getting worse. The leaves are less than half the size they should be. Small branch tips and completely dead brown leaves are falling off and have been for a few weeks. More than half the nuts have not developed and dropped. We had a long conversation about the area conditions. To my shock, he described my tree without seeing it. My tree looks like “someone took a blow torch to it and burnt all the leaves” he stated! He has received tons of calls from concerned tree owners. As he drives around, he sees lots of trees in distress and dying and is very concerned. The next 3 weeks will be critical for tree health in the amount of rain we might get. Now, a week has passed and still no significant rain in sight.

I will share with you below what you can do to try and save your tree and some water saving tips. However, this may be too little too late since some damage is already done.  Also, if a water ban is announced then we cannot water our trees with tap water but we can use rain water, if we get it.

Trees are in great distress right now from lack of water and prone to disease.

Do not trim or prune your healthy tree branches that will add more stress to the tree.

Do trim or prune broken, insect infested or dead branches. Consult your Arborist for advice if you need to prune or trim.

Do not fertilize or use pesticides under drought conditions since these both can burn tree roots.

Never water a tree at the base where the trunk meets the ground, called the root crown area. The roots that take-up the water into the tree are out further just under the drip line. Look up under your tree for the farthest branches and leaves extending out and stand just inside that area called the drip line and water slowly there. The only exception to this is using a “tree gator bag” that is frequently put on trees the first two years after they are planted. It is helpful for residents to re-fill the gator bags on the street trees near their homes.

See diagrams for drip line watering.

Drip line

If you have mulch up against the trunk of your tree, move it away from the trunk at least 9” to 12” or more. That measurement is depending on the size of the main roots coming out of the trunk; you do not want them covered in mulch. Mulching up against tree trunks covers the root crown and causes fungus and root crown rot! I know we see this done everywhere because I assume it looks pretty but this is not correct at all.

Test your soil for dryness at the drip line at a depth of 6” – 12” or more depending on tree size. In a small area, using a screwdriver or a long tool; gently digging down manually staying away from roots to not damage them. If your soil is soggy do not water.

Trees need a long slow drink of water – not a flood or flooding rains that will cause run-off. Because the soil is so compacted and dry, water will run-off and pool and may not get to the tree roots. We want the watering to sink in slowly over a period of time to a depth of about 8” – 24” or more depending on how large the tree is. Use a soaker hose placed in a circle around the drip line. Water for an hour at the least and then check the soil wetness depth. Low flow and slow. If the water floods, pools or runs off the area, stop and adjust the flow so the soil absorbs the water. Test the soil for dryness by gently digging down to 6” – 12” in a small spot and check for wet soil. Allow enough time for the soil to dry out before watering again.

How To Water Your Tree

Mulch helps to keep the soil and tree roots cooler from the extreme heat and helps retain the water. Water first, then put down the mulch. Water the mulch deeply and keep the mulch away from trunks of trees.

If you cannot do a circle around the drip line of your tree because of physical barriers, sheds, garages, trees that overhang sidewalks, at driveway edges or on the sidewalks – pick a spot just under the drip line, low flow and water for an hour. Check soil depth for wetness and again, watch for flooding. Repeat in 2 different areas if possible under the drip line in a week. In this situation you are watering 3 times in a week in three different areas under the drip line.

Example:  My tree branches extend way out over the sidewalk and I have physical property over the extended tree roots. I cannot do a circle to water the tree at the drip line. Picking three areas under the drip line, done one at a time for an hour using a hose on low flow done 3 times in a week will help the roots absorb water.

Those with Sprinkler systems to water your lawn; will not give your trees enough water to thrive. On television news, Arborists were telling people to stop watering their lawns and water your trees instead.

Continue to water your stressed trees after all the leaves have dropped into late fall until the ground freezes.

Capture rain water; that is free water to use for your trees and plants.

Use rain barrels attached to your downspouts. Most homes have 6 downspouts or more. That’s a lot of wasted water coming off your roof and out of your downspouts. Rain barrels connected to your downspouts fill very fast and can hold up to 55 gallons of water each. If you do not have rain barrels you can use any large container under your downspouts to capture some water. Remove the bottom part of the downspout that is close to the ground so your water container fits right under it. If you do not have rain barrels; inexpensive plastic storage containers and large planter pots can be used under your downspout.

Rainbarrel with drainpipe angled to barrel

Rainbarrel with drainpipe angled to barrel

metal rain diverter in downspout

downspout diverter sold during Medford’s rain barrel sales

Assortment of rain barrels sold during Medford's rain barrel sales in the spring. You can see the connectors between them to chain them together.

Assortment of rain barrels sold during Medford’s rain barrel sales in the spring. You can see the connectors between them to chain them together.

Rain gutter extensions are inexpensive (see pic) and used to help rain water move away from foundations. Instead of letting the water flow to the street or lawn, direct the water where you need it. Easily attached, they slide-onto your downspout and some expand to where you want the rain water to flow. You can attach many in sequence to water an area near the drip line of your tree or garden. Also, you can use PVC pipe and or the same downspout drain material that is less expensive to extend to your watering area.


Rain gutter extension

Rain Gutter extensions

July 2016 was the hottest month on record according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration you can read their report here http://www.noaa.gov/news/july-was-hottest-month-on-record-for-globe

Our climate is changing and becoming hotter; we need to consider the effects on our native trees withstanding these higher temperatures. We may need to start planting drought tolerant trees species.

In addition; with new development plans and projects all over town, preserving our historic trees by creating living monuments and implementing tree ordinances to protect all trees is needed. Consider protecting and enhancing our natural resources as our first priority so that we may continue to live.

Many see trees as nuisances and inanimate objects instead of living breathing things. We are their only voice. I met a woman at City Hall one night and we talked about the all the trees being cut down by individuals that don’t like trees and other reasons. I’ll never forget her comment; “have you ever heard a tree scream when it is being cut down?”

For now, please, be a friend and water a tree. We are their guardians!

P.S. Murphy’s Law kicked-in; it rained heavy in Medford on 9/1 for about 30 minutes = fast run-off and more rain in the forecast. If your soil is dry remember to keep watering through late fall.


Information Links:

Caring for Trees In A Dry Climate  

Recognizing Drought Injury

Guidelines for Developing and Evaluating Tree Ordinances

Encouraging Historic Preservation, When You Should Encourage Historic Preservation 

How Climate Change Will Transform the National Parks Iconic Animals and Plants


Update on September 15, 2016: What Would It Take To End the New England Drought? by Chief Meteorologist Eric Fisher.


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