Dakota gardener: Back in '21

Joe Zeleznik
North Dakota State University Extension

I sometimes wonder if I would have made a good historian.

I enjoy reading about the past, and I’ve done quite a bit of research through archival documents to learn about our ancestors.

What will the history books say about 2021 and what happened to the trees? I hope they’ll say that it was an average year and nothing special happened.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I would make a terrible financial planner. Predict what’s going to happen to the market in the next three years? I can barely predict what’s going to happen in the next three days.

Yet for the trees of North Dakota, I’m thinking about the next three to six months. It’s early March and most of North Dakota is in a drought; in more than two-thirds of the state, that’s a severe drought.

How will that affect the trees? About the best we can do is make an educated guess because a lot depends on the weather this spring and summer.

If it stays dry, the trees will be highly stressed. Trees that already were stressed from insect and disease pressure likely will decline and some will die. Those that remain will be more susceptible to pests. It’s a vicious cycle: stress upon stress upon stress.

But we certainly have hope. For now, subsoil moisture is still OK. Trees have survived droughts in North Dakota in the past. The Dust Bowl years of the 1930s were some of the worst in the last 300 years, but droughts in the 1840s and 1860s were terrible as well. A lot of trees survived.

If the drought worsens in 2021, one species that’s likely to respond quickly is hackberry. Hackberry is one of the first species to drop its leaves when the soil dries up. The trees then go dormant. It’s actually a great survival mechanism.

Other species will hold onto their leaves a bit longer; they might shut down their actual growth without going dormant, but will hold onto their leaves. If moisture conditions improve later in the summer, those other species will have an advantage because they still have their leaves. In that situation, hackberry would be less competitive. It’s a trade-off in survival mechanisms.

Another concern right now is the lack of snow cover in central and western North Dakota. Snow provides a lot of insulation to the soil, but without it, soil temperatures can drop far lower than they normally do. That will stress tree roots and sometimes will kill them.

I’m usually pretty tough on my own trees. To survive in my yard, they’re going to have to make it on their own. I rarely water them. In 2021, I might have to rethink that attitude. Maybe it’s time to think about irrigation or controlling weeds and grass competition a bit more.

If you decide to irrigate your own trees, remember to go low and slow. Let the water slowly sink into the soil. And make sure to move the hose or sprinkler around the tree for better coverage. Tree roots extend far beyond the dripline of the tree crown.

Try to avoid saline water, if you can. That would make the stress even worse.

So what will the history books say about the trees in 2021? Most of them survived. Even though times were tough, the trees were tougher.

Catkins of a Prairie Horizon Manchurian alder dangle on the North Dakota State University campus.