Guy Sternberg and Audrey Brauer tip a tank of water so Kelsey Tucker can get every drop. Brauer and Tucker are interns at Starhill Forest Arboretum near Petersburg. Sternberg and his wife own the arboretum. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register
Trees start to wilt as drought intensifies
The State Journal-Register
PETERSBURG—At Starhill Forest Arboretum near Petersburg, a tank of water is tipped up on edge to drain out every last drop needed to water thirsty trees.
Guy Sternberg, who owns the arboretum with his wife, Edie, is driving back and forth to Tallula, hauling water.
“We have no city water, no well, and the creek behind our house is dry,” Sternberg says. “We are trying to water and keep new trees alive.”
That is a big task for Sternberg and two summer interns from Illinois College.
Starhill Forest has an extensive collection of rare, one-of-a-kind trees, including an internationally recognized collection of oaks.
There’s no way to water them all.
“We’re just trying to water new ones,” Sternberg said. “We’ve watering 1,000 trees growing in one- to two-gallon pots, 93 new trees planted in March and April, and about 250 trees in the nursery.”
No water at all
Chuck Smith of the Springfield Park District has the same problem. He’s trying to water trees at the district’s more than 40 sites (including bike trails and golf courses), but he also is falling behind.
“I’ve planted too many trees over the years,” he said with a laugh.
“I keep track of everything I plant in every park,” he said. “I just get them on a rotation and I go back and hit them all. I wish we didn’t have to, but there is absolutely no water out there at all.”
Some trees already are showing effects of the drought, especially those used to moist sites, like cottonwoods, buckeyes and willows.
Sternberg said some of those trees already are shedding their oldest leaves, making it appear as if fall is arriving early.
“Everything is stressed,” he said. “Trees already have been set back by the late freeze, plus Japanese beetles plus drought that has become a multiple-year drought (which started about 14 months ago, and continued through a mild winter with little snow).
“At some point, they just run out of energy.”
Sternberg said the full effects of the drought won’t be evident for some years.
“Ten years from now, the tree will fall over and you will have no idea why, and you can think back to the drought of 2012,” he said.
Illinois College interns Kelsey Tucker, left, and Audrey Brauer water trees at Starhill Forest Arboretum near Petersburg. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register.
Caring for drought-stressed trees
*Make water count.
“Don’t just sprinkle,” said Guy Sternberg, arborist and co-author of “Native Trees for North American Landscapes.” “Make sure you deep-water your trees. You need to get a lot of water on it, not just a little bit once in awhile.”
*Reduce competition. Grass and trees are natural enemies.
“Moisten the soil and get rid of the grass and weeds around the root zone,” Sternberg said. “Grass and trees don’t mix well. In stressful situations, trees try to shade out the grass that competes with the tree for water and nutrients.”
Trees growing in the woods don’t have as much grass to provide competition.
“Instead there are dead twigs, acorn caps and other debris,” he said. “Your lawn and the woods are different ecosystems entirely.
“Get the turf out from under your tree and get it away from the tree as far as possible,” Sternberg said.
*Water the entire “canopy zone.”
Trees can spread roots horizontally about three times as far as the tree is tall, Sternberg said.
“If you don’t cover a broad area, you won’t cover enough of the root zone,” he said. “Soak the area with the equivalent of an inch of rain.
“An inch soaks in about eight inches, and most tree roots extend six to eight inches below ground,” Sternberg said.
*Mulch to keep water from evaporating.
“Mulch over moist ground, otherwise mulch is going to absorb the first part of the rain,” Sternberg said. “Mulch should shade the ground and protect it from sun and wind.
“Water, then mulch to preserve what you have done.”
Roots are most dense under the canopy.
“If you can mulch even a portion of that, with up to a couple of inches of mulch, you are going to have benefits for the tree,” Sternberg said. “But be sure to keep mulch two inches away from the trunk. Use wood chips, bark or any other woody debris.”
For newly planted trees, create a fill basin in the mulch that will hold about an inch of water.
“These are just general rules,” he said. “If you have a tree that is mulched properly, if you feel moisture, it is O.K., if it feels hot, water.”
Farmers in 26 counties in southern Illinois can apply for drought-related disaster relief.
Under new rules announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, those counties automatically qualify for a disaster designation. No formal declaration is necessary.
The criteria include severe drought conditions for eight or more consecutive weeks during the growing season.
Bob Flider, the state’s acting agriculture director, said farmers in the affected counties could be eligible for low-interest emergency loans.
They should contact their county Farm Service Agency offices.
The state agencies that make up Illinois’ Drought Response Task Force met this week to discuss recommendations and assistance for those hurt by the dry, hot weather.