Landscapes struggle to recover from 2012 drought

Published: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 10:22 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, May 25, 2013 9:52 a.m. CDT

Many lawns, trees and shrubs in northern Illinois have not recovered from last year’s drought, and there is a chance they never will.

“The drought last year damaged pretty much anything that was growing outside from one extent to another,” said Richard Hentschel, horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension.

“What isn’t evident is how our larger established trees and shrubs are. Right now they appear OK, but I don’t believe they are,” he said.

Horticulturists and lawn care professionals are fielding calls this spring from homeowners hoping to repair damage caused by last year’s drought and to bring ailing plants back to life.

“Pine trees and evergreens have suffered the most. I have been removing a lot of those or referring the bigger jobs to other people,” said Trevor Elliott of DeKalb, owner of Trevor’s Lawn Care.

Evergreens tend to suffer the most from drought conditions because they lose moisture through their needles all year and cannot drop their needles to conserve water, as a birch tree could drop its leaves mid-season.

In times of drought, trees’ root systems shrink, diminishing their ability to absorb water the next year. Even with a normal amount of rainfall, the shrunken root system may not be able to sustain the tree. Large deciduous trees are often the last plants to show symptoms of drought damage.

“They may leaf out now and fail in mid-summer, or they may not leaf out at all,” Hentschel said.

He recommends watering deciduous trees this spring and summer with a garden hose for several hours a week. Restoring trees’ health quickly can improve their resistance to drought, insects and disease.

Dead, thin and damaged grass will also require maintenance by homeowners.

“You are going to see a bigger weed population this year because of the drought we had last year,” Elliott said. He recommended pulling weeds, raking up dead grass, watering each morning and carefully applying granular fertilizer and turf builder strictly according to the instructions printed on those products’ bags.

Hentschel and Elliott both said badly-damaged trees and lawns can often be salvaged, but may require the services of an arborist or professional lawn service.

For more information, visit the Lawn Talk website at urbanext.illinois.edu/lawntalk/.

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