Can my trees drown?

Yes, they sure can. As spring moves closer, we might witness a few favorites in our yards that simply won’t come back. By the summer months, we’ll have a better idea of our losses caused by too much rain.

When folks talk about their trees “drowning” they usually mean the tree roots have been waterlogged for weeks or even months. Tree roots need oxygen. Too much water will eventually kill the roots.

“Yes, plants can certainly suffer and even die during periods of extended wet weather or poorly drained soil,” says Jay Wilkerson, horticulturist for the Town of Farmville. “While we cannot control our weather, we can use a few techniques to avoid drowning plants.”

Central Virginia is laden with heavy clay soil so amending it with a soil conditioner before planting can help, says Wilkerson. A soil conditioner is not a fertilizer but a mixture of organic and inorganic matter. Commercial soil conditioners such as LeafGro are available for purchase from nurseries. It’s not completely compost, but it’s not peat moss.

“Peat moss tends to hold a lot of moisture and would be best used in sandy soils that need help with moisture retention rather than drainage,” advised Wilkerson.

Location, Location, Location!

Choose wisely. Is the planting site in a low laying depression that collects standing water after a rain? Are you planting near a downspout or gutter or a runoff area?

“There are times when we have to plant in a less than ideal area,” says Wilkerson. “In which case, I usually plant the root ball an inch or two above grade.” Never plant new trees or shrubs below grade because that will collect a lot of excess water and be very slow to dry out.”

For further instruction consult Trees for Problem Landscape Sites — Wet and Dry Sites ( as well as Tree and Shrub Planting Guidelines (

Invest in the future

Certain trees and shrubs can tolerate wet soil better than others. Bald cypress, willows, birch, poplar and some oaks will tolerate wet soil. On the other hand, fruit and nut trees prefer well drained soil and don’t tolerate boggy soils.

“Since growing an orchard is an investment in time that will take years to mature, it is probably best to choose a location with full sun and good drainage,” advised Wilkerson.

Always avoid excess mulching particularly overloading it around the bases of trees.

The Waiting Game

“All we can do now is be patient and give things plenty of time to break dormancy this spring,” says Wilkerson. “I’m sure certain perennials and even some shrubs will be lost but I do not expect it to be catastrophic.”

Established and especially native plants are surprisingly resilient. Fingers crossed! In gardening we plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Virginia McCown is a master gardener living in Central Virginia along with her garden and assorted creatures both great and small.

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