Water Trees in Late Summer

In late summer, rainfall tends to be less abundant in eastern Nebraska than in spring and early summer.  Like all other plants in the landscape, whether edible, functional or ornamental, trees need water to grow well.  At this point in the season, there is a critical need for water as fruit and shade trees are forming buds for next year’s growth.  Even though newer trees are less tolerant of dry soils than established trees, mid-size and larger trees still require adequate moisture.  The advantage that larger specimens have over small ones is simply the capacity to draw from a larger volume of soil.


The question of whether watering is required can be quickly answered by probing the soil at various locations around the tree with a screwdriver or similar probe.  During the probing, if the metal rod enters the soil with a moderate push, it’s a hint that moisture is adequate.  If it is resistant or hard to press into the soil, it’s probably too dry; conversely, if it slides in with no resistance at all, the soil is already sufficiently wet.  Visually, once the probe is removed, taking a look at the screwdriver blade can be helpful.  If mud is sticking to it, no water is required; if dust is covering it, watering is probably in order.

screwdriver in soil

Once the determination of adequate soil moisture has been made, it’s common for the soil around trees to need moisture.  Water can be added in several ways – running the turf sprinkler system, laying a soaker hose on the soil surface, using a drip system and using a portable sprinkler attached to the outdoor hose spigot.  All of these devices have advantages and disadvantages.  They key overall is to supply moisture to the roots in a slow and deliberate manner.


The big difference between watering woody plants such as trees and shrubs versus herbaceous plants like vegetables, groundcovers, annuals and perennials is that tree and shrub roots usually expand extensively beyond the periphery or “drip line” of the foliage, whereas most herbaceous plants develop roots directly below the crown and shoots.  As watering of dry soils should be done over the entire root system of all plants, watering woody specimens should be targeted at the area twice to three times as wide as the spread of the leaves.  No matter which device you choose to accomplish this goal, the idea to keep in mind is: moist; not soggy or dry.

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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