As spring arrives, drought-damaged trees may require fertilizer, extra water

Tuesday, March 19, 2013 | 6:23 p.m. CDT; updated 6:39 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 19, 2013

COLUMBIA — Although more precipitation is in the forecast this week, mid-Missouri trees affected by drought could still require immediate treatment, such as watering and fertilizing.

Spring officially starts Wednesday, a perfect time to help trees recover from a particularly brutal year in 2012, said Tim Baker, horticulture specialist for MU Extension.  

"If you saw a tree struggling during last year's drought, that will be the tree to watch this spring," Baker said. 

When leaves return to deciduous trees, Baker said, the best way to determine their health is to compare leaves to similar trees in the area. The more vibrant the color, the better the tree is doing.

If leaves are slow to return, don't panic.

"Some trees may be late to leaf out, which will be a good indicator they need help from fertilizer or water," Baker said. "On the other hand, evergreens will show stress by any unnatural browning."

Before fertilizing, it can help to bring a soil sample to the MU Extension Soil and Plant Testing Laboratory at Mumford Hall, he said. An analysis costs $10 per sample. The best method is to take a couple pints of soil from around the tree's root line 4 to 6 inches into the ground.

The results will indicate what fertilizer, if any, is necessary for the tree's health, Baker said.

Fertilizing after leaves appear is considered late, said Mark Coggeshall, a research assistant professor in MU's Forestry Department.

"It's important to fertilize the tree's roots before the grass returns and steals the nutrients," Coggeshall said. "After the last 12 months, those roots need help to recover. If you're going to do it at all, do it now."

Watering trees will also be important throughout the spring and summer, said Eric Martin, certified arborist and owner of Midwest Tree Solutions.

"The snow and rain we've received has helped, but it's still not enough to fix the problem," he said. "The best thing a tree owner can do is make sure the root zone is well-watered in coming months."

The amount of water will depend on the tree, Martin said, but a good rule of thumb is to water once a week.

"It's really hard to over-water right now," Martin said. 

Midwest Tree Solutions, which offers a tree health evaluation service, is receiving several calls a day to analyze drought and structural damage, Martin said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey  

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