‘So many dead trees in Wichita’: Trees need extra care in drought

By Annie Calovich | May 30, 2023

Photo by Annie Calovich Dan Wetta says the time and money he’s spent keeping this elm tree healthy are well worth it.

As the first flush of flower and leaf faded from the landscape this spring, an ugly reality emerged.

Many of the trees were still brown.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many dead trees in Wichita,” said Brian Ernstmann, owner of Ernstmann Tree Care.

Drought is the main culprit. While trees in home lawns often get watered along with the grass, that was not enough in a summer as dry as last year’s.

“You have to put more water on for a longer time to get to the tree roots,” Ernstmann said.

While it is rare for a dead tree to fall, Ernstmann said that dead branches that are left in trees will continue to decay and could soon present a danger.

“I think this summer and fall, they’re going to come down,” he said.

People who want to preserve their trees have to take extra steps during dry spells to help them make it through.

Dan Wetta, a retirement planner, is one of them. A huge exotic elm tree shades almost all of his front yard in College Hill. When one of its big roots pushed up the sidewalk to dangerous heights three years ago, Wetta convinced the city to curve the new walk around the root to minimize stress on the tree, and he gladly paid the $300 for the extra concrete. Last summer, he moved a soaker hose around the perimeter of the canopy to keep the roots in water. One month, the water bill was $360.

All of this trouble and expense is a small price to pay for what the tree provides, though. Standing under its boughs on Roosevelt Street, a few houses south of Central, is to be transported to another world.

“I’ll sit outside and crack peanuts and have a beer in the evening, and people will come by walking their dogs, and their eyes are always drawn up,” Wetta said. “And sometimes people will stop and take it all in. It looks like it belongs in New Orleans with the way those boughs come out and go horizontal. It’s quite a landmark in College Hill.”

The tree has an unusual form because it’s an American river elm, according to Mark Devries, who owned the house before Wetta. “It’s probably wider than it is tall,” he said. He started having the tree treated to deter disease in the early 1990s when he bought the house.
      “It’s an incredibly healthy tree,” Devries said, estimating that it is 80 years old. It would put out so much growth when he lived there — several feet a year — that the pendulous branches would sweep the ground. Wetta cuts the ends off to lighten the load.
      He also babies the giant elm with professional injections and his own sense of watering that comes from being in tune with nature.

“Whatever the rainfall has or hasn’t been, I estimate it,” he said.

“I take a soaker hose and lay it out around the drip line under the canopy and just let it run a couple hours. I just move it around … to another dry spot. It has a huge drip line.”

Ernstmann knows Wetta’s elm — “I love that tree” — and applauds Wetta’s technique of watering deeply and around the drip line, which is the outermost edge of the branches all the way around the tree.

For those who don’t pay as much attention to how much rain does or doesn’t fall as Wetta does, a rain gauge is a big help, as is testing the soil with a long screwdriver or other probe to see just how far the water is penetrating.   

K-State recommends watering established trees to make sure the soil is wet down to at least a depth of 12 inches every three or four weeks if it doesn’t rain in the meantime. For trees such as upright evergreens, it’s also necessary to go out beyond the drip line, K-State says, as their roots can extend twice the distance of the height of the tree. Younger trees need even more water.

River birches, which, as their name implies, like more water than your average tree, naturally are suffering the most from the drought, Ernstmann said. More evergreens than usual also seem to have become everbrowns.

For trees that are looking sickly, Ernstmann recommends testing the branches. “There needs to be moisture in the stems. If they break easily and don’t bend,” they won’t come back, he said. But he would give those trees that still have some suppleness to mid-June to show signs of leaf growth before declaring them goners. At that point, it will be time to look at removal, and then at looking for a new tree to help keep the landscape beautiful, and then watering it as needed. Dead branches should be removed sooner rather than later for safety as well as beautification.

Wetta said of his beloved elm: “An arborist told me, ‘What’ll kill that tree is a bad drought.’ I never forgot that.”

Contact Annie Calovich at acalovich@att.net.

City arbortist: ‘Planting rates are not keeping up with our removal rates’

The city of Wichita is in the process of adopting a City Tree Policy to improve tree protection, although no official action has been taken on it since a draft was completed in April 2022. It will apparently apply only to trees on city property right-of-way, unlike some cities that require private landowners to mitigate tree loss. 

The Active Age submitted questions to Gary Farris, arborist for the city forestry division, about the state of trees on city property.

Q: What is your assessment of how parks, medians and other city properties are looking because of the drought’s effects on trees and perhaps other plants?
      A: Drought-stressed trees are more susceptible to secondary pests that can lead to more tree decline and eventual tree death. Trees are resilient to a point, and I do not believe that we have reached a breaking point yet like we saw in 2011, 2012, and 2013. For now, I think the park trees are looking pretty good to include newly planted trees.
     Q: Is there any sense of how many trees or any estimate of a percentage that have died since last summer?
     A: The specific answer to the question is difficult to gauge since that is not how we track the data. We did remove about 2,000 trees last year from street right-of-way and the parks. The majority of those are at the end of their life cycle or impacted by disease or pests, such as the large number of pine trees dying from disease.
    Q: Have you been getting any feedback from people about how the parks are looking?
    A: We get feedback all the time. Most of the feedback is positive, some not. We remain focused on keeping the parks safe for those using the parks.  This includes a renewed effort to plant new trees.
    Q: Is there any response planned as far as removal and replacement of the trees that have been lost?
   A: Trees are living beings and have life cycles so there are trees dying all the time. We are doing our best to keep up with removing the dead/dangerous ones. Replanting is a vital part of what we do as an organization. Our current planting rates are not keeping up with our removal rates, so there is a net negative for urban canopy expansion.

 Efforts to increase the number of trees planted are already under way. However, the City of Wichita can plant in only about 10% of the land in Wichita, and there are other constraints such as utilities and specific land use. The rest of the land in the city is privately owned, which means that private property owners are encouraged to plant trees as well.