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What the drought has meant for Fargo-Moorhead's trees

The drought had local forestry departments scrambling to water newly planted trees over the summer.

Tree watering
City forestry worker Duwayne Kittelson waters a newly planted tree Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, along 25th Street South in Fargo. Kittelson said each tree gets about 20 gallons of water once a week. Chris Flynn / The Forum
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FARGO — Both young and established trees in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area have been impacted by the region-wide drought, but the full effects may not be known for some time, local foresters say.

Chad Zander, forestry program coordinator for West Fargo, said the city lost 15 to 20 newly planted trees that it was maintaining and about 100 trees in residential areas, because they didn’t get adequate rainfall or watering.

Moorhead also lost a few new trees due to the dry conditions this summer, said city forester Trent Wise.

Certain young trees like bur oaks are already at greater risk because they’re susceptible to transplant shock, he said, and this year was increasingly difficult for them.

“We will have a better idea next spring if these trees will have any lingering effects,” Wise said.

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Trees were also lost in Fargo, where Urban Forestry Programs Manager Allen Lee estimated 95% to 97% of newly planted trees survived the dry conditions.
Watering trees was the highest priority this summer for all three city forestry departments as the drought worsened.

Moorhead took on an additional water truck to try to keep up with watering needs.

In Fargo, Lee said he typically had three to four staff members dedicated to watering trees, five to six days a week all summer long.

Other tasks, such as removing stakes and re-mulching trees had to be put off, he said.

Nearly 1,600 new and replacement trees were planted on Fargo boulevards this spring and summer, and Lee said most will do fine because of that routine watering.

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Volunteer Bill Siderski from US Bank waters a freshly planted tree as part of the Reforest the Red Fargo event at Pontes Park on Sept. 8, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

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He said he’s more concerned about established trees, which may not show effects of drought until next year or years after.

Larger trees with well-established root systems are better prepared to deal with the stressors that come with drought, but they can still be affected, Wise said.

Foresters in all three cities reported seeing signs of stress in older trees, including early fall color, smaller than normal leaves, wilting leaves and premature shedding of leaves. A stressed tree can also be more vulnerable to pests and other health problems.

“There are a number of trees that look less healthy than we would like to see as we head into the dormant season,” Wise said.

However, the 2½ inches of rain that fell several weeks ago was perfectly timed, Lee said, giving the soil a good recharge.

During times of drought, it’s important to give trees a good, long soak about once a week or so rather than doing frequent, shallow waterings.

Wise recommends watering the entire dripline of the tree instead of putting water next to the base or trunk only. Using drip irrigation or soaker hoses is a good way to get sufficient penetration without water runoff, he said.

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Allen Lee, the city’s urban forestry manager, says the new trees, like the one at his home, are fine because they’ve been watered often. Damage to more established trees, in the two to six year range, or even older, may not be known for a while. David Samson / The Forum

Another important step in keeping trees healthy is eliminating the competition between them and surrounding grass. “They grow together, but they do not like each other much,” Lee said.

Putting a generous amount of wood chips or another type of mulch around the base can accomplish that.

The city of Fargo has 59,000 street trees, Lee said, and the key to their health is looking to the future, past the drought.

“What’s done is done. We can’t go back,” he said.

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