Understanding Recovery After Drought

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Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

So many folks received a good rain last week! The most I’ve heard from a producer in Angelina County was over 2.5 inches. The lowest was a meager 0.10 inches, but any and all rain was appreciated.

As we eventually come to the end of a drought, I start getting the question, “How can I tell if my (fill in the blank) plant will come back or is it dead and needs to be replaced?” Everything from pastures to orchards to landscape perennials and lawns has suffered tremendously.

To be certain, the recovery of drought-stressed plants after rain largely depends on a number of factors. Each location’s response will depend on the severity of the drought, the overall health of the plants, and the specific characteristics of the plant that you are concerned about.

Let’s delve into some factors to ponder when assessing if your drought-stressed plants will recover.

How severe was the drought on your property? Indeed, everyone went without rain for weeks. Yet the severity could have differed due to soil conditions. I just spoke with a lady who has landed in a bottomland, and she insists her pasture never suffered much!

What were the plant species? Many landscapes that were planted with native, heirloom, or other well-adapted perennials will probably recover quite well. Different plant species have varying levels of tolerance to drought. Some plants are naturally adapted to harsh, dry conditions and can recover easily.

What kind of soil do you have? A thin sandy soil on top of hard-packed clay seems to be the hardest to recover from.  Deeper soils with more of a loamy blend have greater potential for recovery. Looking ahead, the well-draining soils allow for better recovery as compacted or poorly draining can hinder the recovery process.

How healthy was the plant(s) going into the drought? Younger and healthier plants tend to recover more quickly from drought stress compared to older or weakened plants. Robust plants have a better chance of regaining their vitality. I love hearing stories about trees that were planted generations ago. Folks will say, “That tree has got to be a hundred years old!” And while that is a great testimony to the generations of a family, all living things do have a life span. Gingerly, I try to remind folks that they may be caring for these old trees in the twilight days, and stressors such as an awful drought, might just do them in.

Then as we receive rain, let’s consider the rain’s intensity and duration as we look forward. A light, steady rain that has time to soak in is far more beneficial for plant recovery than a heavy downpour that might fill up your pond but has little time to soak into the soil.   A longer duration of gentle rain allows the water to penetrate the soil and reach the root zone more effectively.

After a good, heavy rain, continue to monitor the plants closely. Interestingly, you have to avoid overwatering once the rains begin as water-logged soil can also stress the roots. I know this seems far away. Nevertheless, adjust irrigation as needed, allowing the plants to adjust to the new moisture levels.

Studying trees, shrubs, and other woody perennials, I encourage folks to bend the branches or maybe scratch under the bark. If your limbs are pliable, then there is a good chance of life returning. If they snap like a matchstick, then that is evidence of dieback.

Give your plants time to show signs of recovery. Signs of recovery may include the appearance of new growth, improved leaf turgidity, and increased overall vitality. Remember that recovery is a gradual process, and it might take some time before you see significant improvements. (If ‘turgidity’ is a new word to you, a turgid leaf is fully expanded with moisture. The opposite of a turgid leaf is a shriveled or wilted leaf.)

I would wait to prune. If parts of the plant have been severely damaged or are showing no signs of recovery, you might need to consider pruning them during the dormant winter months to encourage new growth the following spring. For oak trees that lost their leaves, consider waiting until spring to see if they leaf out. It is important for us to be patient.  Recovery from drought stress is not always immediate. It might take weeks or even months for the plants to fully recover, depending on the severity of the stress and the factors mentioned above.

Remember that each plant and situation is unique. While some plants might rebound quickly after a rain, others might require more time and care to recover fully. I think heaven ought to have long gentle showers every Monday, followed by a great week of sunshine. About an inch each Monday would be as nice as streets of gold.

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