For Release January 15, 2002

Droughts Also Happen in Winter

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

If we were playing a word association game, and I said the word drought, most of you would probably immediately think of a long hot summer in Kansas, much like we saw in 2000. This is a very natural response. But the truth is that a drought can occur anytime when we have had several months of significantly below normal precipitation. The last significant precipitation event in our area was October 16th, 2001. We have gone three months with less than an inch of precipitation. Even though itís winter, we are in the early stages of a moderate drought.

Keep in mind that January and February are our two driest months of the year. Keep in mind that November and December were both over six and a half degrees warmer than normal. Keep in mind that for the first half of January we have had no precipitation and we are over seven degrees above normal. While you may be thinking that this yearís warm and dry winter is a nice change from last winterís cold, snow, and ice, you may want to reconsider the long range impact of this "nice" weather.

The truth of the matter is that this warm and dry weather is already starting to take its toll. Wheat fields, that had a great deal of extra growth last fall, are going to find themselves seriously short of moisture when spring growth starts IF we donít start to see some significant precipitation occurring sometime soon. We canít do much about that, just sort of wait and see. But in our lawns and yards, we can do something to help temper the negative effects of this weather pattern.

My first concern would be for any evergreen tree or shrub. These plants continue to grow and carry on photosynthesis whenever we have temperatures above freezing. Photosynthesis requires water. If there isnít water in the soil, the plant will start to steal water from itself. When that happens, buds, leaves/needles, twigs and branches are sacrificed for the moisture they contain. In the summer we call this condition scorch. In the winter we call it winter kill.

The plants at greatest risk will be, in order of sensitivity; spruces/firs, holly, boxwood, pines, junipers, and evergreen euonymous. Somewhere in that mix we also need to include lawns, especially new lawns planted last year that were very green and very lush clear into December. If it is a plant that still has green foliage, it is at some risk. And the biggest problem is that by the time you see visual symptoms of drought damage on the evergreens, the damage is already done!

We need to take advantage of these days with temperatures above freezing and get some moisture into the ground. My preferred method is an open hose running at a slow trickle in the drip zone of the plant. How long should you water? For larger trees, all day, maybe even a couple of days if the water is still soaking in. Obviously, smaller trees and shrubs will have a more limited root system, but as long as the soil is still taking up the water, and not running down the gutter, you can keep putting it on. Just be sure to disconnect the hose from the hydrant each night so you donít freeze and bust any pipes!

I donít think that all lawns need to be watered right now. But if you have one of those new lush lawns, that was still green and growing strong clear up to Christmas, you may want to be getting some water on it. If you have an underground sprinkler system, you may want to use a hose and above ground sprinkler system so you donít risk freezing pipes. It will rain or snow sometime. But we donít know when, and damage may already be occurring. Take care of your plants before itís too late!


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