March 19, 2013

Arborist: Plant trees to help offset thinning of Wichita’s canopy

On the first day of spring, the city arborist has a plea: Plant a tree.

On the first day of spring, the city arborist has a plea: Plant a tree.

Or a dozen.

Even though we can’t see the leaves yet, the city’s shade canopy is tearing apart under the weight of drought and the pests and diseases it has ushered in. Additionally, new tree terrors loom in the form of the emerald ash borer and thousand cankers disease that have not yet been detected in Sedgwick County but that are expected to eventually devastate certain species of trees here.

But current problems are bad enough without looking to the future. The city of Wichita removed 6,000 dead trees in Wichita last year.

“When the leaves come out, we’re going to see more trees that didn’t make it through the winter,” Wichita city arborist Gary Farris said this week.

“I encourage all property owners to plant at least one tree this year, more if you can. ... Our urban canopy is suffering, and we need to rectify that.”

Because of budget constraints, Farris expects the city to plant only about 300 new trees this year. Requests by homeowners for the city to plant trees in the right-of-way portions of their yards have been maxed out for the year, he said, and a waiting list already has been created for next year. Homeowners who would like to take the task on themselves can apply for a free permit to plant in the right of way, Farris said; contact him at or 316-268-4003.

“The last couple of years have just been amazing. ... Two years in a row is difficult to recover from,” said Jason Griffin, director of K-State’s John C. Pair Horticultural Center in Haysville, speaking of drought conditions. One thing people need to keep in mind is that trees hurt by drought may not show symptoms immediately, he said; it may be over the next couple of years that they see borers or other pests or diseases taking advantage of a weakened tree.

“One of the things we saw last spring, because 2011 was so hot and dry, they leafed out and looked fine and then they died. By May, they were gone. They had enough energy to push out new leaves but not enough to survive,” Griffin said.

But the task of growing trees is not impossible, Griffin said: “A lot of the trees that we grow, if they’re grown well, they have a fairly decent amount of drought resistance. They have to be grown well. The problem is when we don’t buy a healthy tree or plant it properly or maintain it, a summer like the last two can push it over the edge.”

So in order to thicken the city’s canopy, people are going to have to be able to water new and established trees, including those in the city’s right of way. Watering will go a long way to helping trees fend off stress, said Raymond Cloyd, professor of entomology at K-State. But many people don’t understand the practice, he said.

“Give established and new trees deep, infrequent waterings. Take a shovel or trowel and make sure water is getting down deep, maybe leaving a hose on for a while,” he said. Trees also must be watered not only at the trunk but as far out as the branches extend, he said.

The experts also stress that it’s important to plant drought-tolerant trees and those that fit the sites where they’re planted. The Extension Service has a list of drought-tolerant plants, and local nurseries can help match trees to locations.

“Any of our oaks are incredibly tough,” Griffin said. “Chinese pistache – we can’t believe how tough those things are. We have options.”

A tree also has to be given plenty of room to grow. “That root system underground is huge. So anything that restricts it – a driveway, a sidewalk, a parking lot – is going to sacrifice a tree’s drought tolerance.”

Area tree experts also are preparing for the arrival of problems that have wiped out huge numbers of trees in other parts of the country. Most recently, the Kansas Forest Service and Department of Agriculture sponsored a workshop on the emerald ash borer last week in Wichita to raise awareness of a pest that has killed more than 50 million ash trees in the Upper Midwest. The borer was detected for the first time in Kansas in August in Wyandotte County. Traps will be set across Kansas this spring and summer to try to help detect any further incursion, said Jeff Vogel of the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

Green ash trees are the main victims of the borer. Certain insecticides can help healthy ash trees survive an infestation, but the treatments must be ongoing.

Some municipalities, particularly in the Kansas City area, where Wyandotte County is, are making plans for how to deal with the borer’s inevitable devastation, Cloyd said, making an inventory of their ash trees and determining, based on their budgets, that weaker ash trees may need to be cut down, while others may be worth trying to save.

Farris said that the city of Wichita would not have money to treat ash trees on city property, but, fortunately, ashes don’t make up a big percentage of the tree canopy.

“The workshops we’ve done, hopefully, have started the city officials, sometimes elected officials ... to get communities prepared and planning ahead,” Cloyd said.

But “people shouldn’t be pushing the panic button. ... There’s no need to cut down every ash tree. That’s ridiculous.”

Thousand cankers is another problem that hovers. The disease, which has been found in nine western states and four eastern states, can kill a walnut tree in two to three years. Kansas, which has native ranges of eastern black walnut trees, has established a quarantine on walnut products from the infested states.

“The key is people need to plant a diversity of different species, so if there’s another disease, it doesn’t wipe out everything,” Cloyd said. “The other thing is just get educated. Call the Department of Agriculture or the Extension. ... Go to sources trying to keep up with the invasives.”

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