How to Help Your Trees Survive a Drought

Candace Nelson
Written by Candace Nelson
Updated April 4, 2022
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  • Mature trees can withstand dry conditions better than young trees.

  • Yellow or wilted leaves and premature leaf dropping are signs of a dry tree.

  • A layer of mulch can help trees retain moisture.

  • Don’t fertilize a tree during or immediately after a drought.

  • Don’t plant young trees during the heat of summer.

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Prolonged drought can cause irreversible damage to trees, and young ones are especially vulnerable. Mature trees have developed extensive underground roots that can get water from deep in the ground. But young trees that have only been in the ground for two to three years need more direct watering to survive a drought. Trees count on you for a drink, so keep reading to learn how to protect them from dehydration and droughts.

Signs of a Thirsty Mature Tree

A thirsty tree is a tree under stress, and it’ll show in its leaves or needles. If you notice your favorite tree has yellowed leaves that look wilted, it’s likely in need of water. The leaves might also look brown or scorched. Contrast that with signs of a healthy tree.

Dehydrated trees will also drop their leaves prematurely when they don’t have the energy to sustain foliage. The tree might have dead branches or look thinner than usual on top. These can also be signs of an insect infestation, so if your tree doesn’t look better after a few solid days of watering, you might want to call an arborist near you for help.

Tree Care Tips to Ward off Dehydration

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A little help before a drought can give your tree a fighting chance in the dry season.

Give It Some Mulch 

A layer of mulch helps trees retain water and manage their temperature. It can also prevent weeds from sprouting up in the tree’s space. When adding mulch, treat your tree like Goldilocks and give it just the right amount since a thick mountain of it just invites critters to burrow and blocks oxygen, causing root rot. 

Ideally, spread an inch of compost around your trees in the spring, then lay an inch or two of mulch on top of that. Don’t go more than 4 inches thick. Spread an even layer under the tree canopy, which is as wide as the tree’s widest branches, or the part of the ground that would be shaded when the sun is directly overhead.

Effective Tree Watering

It’s crucial to feed trees while simultaneously conserving water during a drought. That means watering the tree directly rather than letting a sprinkler fling water around the yard. 

Using a bucket, water the ground in the tree’s drip line, the area under the tree’s canopy. This will ensure the tree’s feeder roots have access to the water. Use enough water that the area is soaked, not just wet on the surface. 

You might need about 5 gallons once a week. You want about 1 to 1 1/2 inches of water per week during the growing season, which is late spring through early summer. One trick is to put an empty tuna (or similar size) can in your spray area. When the can is full, you’ve watered enough.

Watering early in the morning or after the sun is set will reduce evaporation and help the water to soak into the soil. If you really want to conserve water, you can keep your bucket in the bathroom to collect the water that normally flows down the drain while the shower is heating up. You can also use gray water.

After the Drought

After the drought, you may need to prune away any dead branches as these can weaken the tree’s health. It’ll also make the tree stronger for the next dry season.

If your tree struggled through the hot months, skip fertilizing in the fall. The salts in fertilizers can be tough on dry roots.

Helping Saplings Survive a Drought

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Brand-new trees need a little extra TLC. Water trees under 3 years old two or three days a week if nature isn’t handling the job. 

Plant It Right

Before a drought, follow the guidelines for the best way to plant a tree. Plant your tree as early in the spring after the ground thaws. This will give your tree some time to establish itself before the heat of summer. You can also plant trees when the weather starts to cool in the fall. Check what’s appropriate in your planting zone.

Just like with your more developed trees, add a layer of compost and mulch around your tree. The compost will help give the soil nutrients, and the mulch will help the tree retain moisture.

Watering Guidelines

During a drought, it’s up to you to make sure your new tree stays hydrated. Give it up to 5 gallons of water three times a week. Unlike mature trees, little ones don’t do well when soaked. Spacing out waterings helps ensure the roots don’t get too wet.

Gently pour the water right at the planting area rather than aggressively spraying it at the leaves or the tree trunk. If the leaves look dry or the soil below the mulch layer feels dry, your tree needs watering.

After the Drought

Give your new tree some extra attention after the drought. Saplings don’t like to be pruned, but if your tree has a dead branch, it’s OK to snip just that one. Continue to monitor your tree and its soil to ensure it’s wet enough. If not, you might need another layer of mulch.

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