Debbie Arrington

Thirsty trees need your attention this winter

A cyclist crosses a street in midtown Sacramento. The city’s trees are stressed by drought, and some are in danger. You can help your trees.
A cyclist crosses a street in midtown Sacramento. The city’s trees are stressed by drought, and some are in danger. You can help your trees. Sacramento Bee file

Just because we’ve had a little rain, it doesn’t mean the drought is over. The damage done by drought builds up over time and its lingering effects will take many rainy months to begin to wash away.

Particularly hit hard are trees. Sacramento’s famed urban forest continues to struggle with lack of moisture. But it may be hard to tell if a tree is suffering – especially if it usually drops its leaves this time of year.

As winter approaches, we’re used to letting our woody friends take care of themselves. December rains usually provide all the water they need. We turn off the sprinklers and forget about trees’ needs until the first bright green flush of new spring leaves.

But this winter likely will not be business as usual. All indications are that this prolonged drought will just keep getting worse.

Trees generally can get by with less water in winter, according to arborists. As trees get less sunlight, their systems slow down.

Deciduous trees drop their leaves and go dormant. Evergreens grow at a much slower pace, if at all. After its winter rest, a tree will bounce back in spring – if it has enough water stored. If it doesn’t, it can be a sad, slow death.

“Trees truly are stressed out now and many are showing signs thereof,” said Doug Carlson, of the state’s Department of Water Resources. “Let your tree die and you’ve created an expensive removal problem for yourself.”

Cutting down and hauling away a 50-foot redwood can cost several hundred dollars; the taller the tree, the higher the cost.

Sick or dying trees also become home to all sorts of pests, which in turn can attack healthy plants.

After many months of drought, trees have less ability to help themselves. Tender feeder roots underground have died back, so trees can’t soak up as much water when it does rain.

How do you tell your tree needs help? Here are some warning signs from the Tree Care Industry Association:

▪ Leaves look small or undersized. The tree’s canopy appears sparse.

▪ Foliage may turn prematurely yellow or brown. Or it may seem scorched, especially around the edges. While the leaves of deciduous trees normally turn yellow and drop, evergreens shouldn’t be brown.

▪ New shoots appear stunted, or not at all.

▪ Spots of mold or fungus appear on the trunk. Fungus or other pathogens may infect the tree, often invading the bark or around the crown.

▪ Holes appear in the bark. Insects drill round, often uniform holes in the trunk and branches, infesting the ill tree.

When in doubt, call in an expert. The Sacramento Tree Foundation ( can field most tree-related questions and recommend arborists. Local master gardeners’ help lines (available on The Bee’s Garden Detective page) also are helpful.

In this prolonged water crisis, there will be casualties. Tree care professionals suggest focusing on the trees that you can save. But how?

▪ Water deep and slow. Use a soaker hose, not the sprinklers, and let the moisture seep down to the roots, where it’s needed. Probe the soil with a screwdriver or trowel to be sure the water is penetrating 12 inches or more.

▪ Where you water is important, too. Irrigate at the drip line, the outer edge of the tree’s canopy. Make a circle around the tree with the soaker hose about a foot inside of the drip line.

▪ Then, mulch, mulch, mulch. Pile up pine needles, wood chips or other organic mulch and spread it 3 to 4 inches deep under the tree’s canopy. That will help keep the soil moist longer and make water go farther.

Remember: A little water now can save a thirsty tree and stop future headaches.

“Applying the right amount of water to keep trees healthy as lawns dry out is the ‘Goldilocks solution,’” Carlson added. “Not too little, not too much, but ju-u-ust right.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.