Winter Drought Survival Guide for DC, MD & VA

winter drought guide for dcAccording to the U.S. Drought Monitor, soaking rainfall over the past two weeks has reduced the severity of drought conditions over DC, Baltimore and the surrounding Maryland counties. However, precipitation over the past 90 days still comes up 50-70 percent short. Low groundwater levels are still a concern in these areas where moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions persist.

Although rainfall was normal in May and July, every other month of 2017 was drier than normal for the region. In the Washington metropolitan area, February is the snowiest month on average. March also usually provides some additional wet, heavy snowfalls. But often, storms that form during the winter months are quickly swept out to sea as we’ve experienced with recent minor winter storm events. The most significant impact from these weather events has been to disrupt schedules across the area due to school closings.

All of this makes for a prelude to a bad drought in 2018, from late spring to the end of the growing season. It has also probably affected trees, shrubs and perennials in your home landscaping. Below are some tips for identifying winter drought-related issues and suggested steps for mitigating their impact.

Evergreens: red means dead

Evergreens, those with needles (e.g., juniper, pine, spruce, yew) and with broad leaves (e.g., boxwood, holly, rhododendron) are susceptible to drought due to shallow root systems. Newly planted trees, those grown in unprotected sunny or windy locations and those that are marginally hardy are at an increased risk to injury.

A combination of this past fall’s warm temperatures and dry soils led to desiccation damage in evergreens this winter. This damage, known as “winter burn”, causes bleached, reddish brown or brown needles. It can affect needle tips, a couple of branches or an entire tree. Starting in spring, when temperatures start to rise, affected foliage will initially appear yellow or brown. But once a branch is red, it has died.

How to salvage evergreens

It is safe to prune away dead red branches as they occur. Or to be safer, prune out dead or damaged evergreen foliage as new foliage appears in mid-spring. Over time, new foliage will fill in the injured areas.

If new foliage has not emerged, scratch the bark of the affected branches. Green tissue underneath the bark indicates a live branch. Some trees, like firs, pines and spruces, produce new growth only at the branch tips, replacing winter-burned needles. These do not need pruning at all. Bear in mind that a cut branch tip will never grow longer.

Shallow-rooted shrubs

Azalea, gardenia and lilac are examples of shrubs with shallow root systems. As such, they are often affected by winter drought conditions. They will recover, with time. The leaves may be discolored, but the buds and branches are often still alive. Once the ground thaws, new leaves will sprout.

Water is first aid

Most people do not realize that drought-stressed plants need to be watered, even during the winter. Without supplemental watering, trees, shrubs and perennials may sustain damage that may not be immediately noticeable.

Monitor precipitation and water during the winter accordingly. If your yard did not get at least 1 inch of rain over the last month, water. However, never water when the ground is frozen. Water only when temperatures are above 40 degrees F. Be sure to irrigate early enough in the day so water soaks in before the ground freezes at night.

An ounce of prevention in combatting winter drought

There are certain steps and precautions you can take when planning, planting and caring for your home landscaping:

  • Select cold hardy plants
  • Beware of exposed, sunny or windy planting locations
  • Plant in shadier or protected locations
  • Plant in early spring to allow roots to grow
  • Do not prune in late summer or early fall
  • Mulch and water during the growing season
  • Avoid late season fertilization
  • Use protective barriers on shrubs
  • Take it easy with salt and ice melt

Not everyone is a snow lover – especially those needing to commute during bad weather conditions or those with school-age children who are forced to take a sick day to be home with them. Unfortunately for snow lovers and the green stuff in the ground, things this winter haven’t been very cooperative. Snow lovers can console themselves with the hope that next year will be kinder, but plants and trees will need a little extra care and attention this year in order to make a healthy transition into the warmer months ahead.

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