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Brad Bole, above, project coordinator for Flint Creek Cleanup, approaches a dried-out sapling on a farm near Massey on Friday. The trees were planted under the Continuous Conservation Reserve program.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Brad Bole, above, project coordinator for Flint Creek Cleanup, approaches a dried-out sapling on a farm near Massey on Friday. The trees were planted under the Continuous Conservation Reserve program.

Extreme temps, drought take toll on tree seedlings planted in winter

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

HARTSELLE — Too bad the Farm Service Agency didn't offer cactus as part of the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program.

The prickly plants common in deserts would have had a better chance surviving the record drought and prolonged extreme heat than the pines and oaks planted last winter.

There are just not many plants in the state that can withstand two weeks of extreme temperatures, said Kerry Smith, extension homegrounds team agent for Auburn University.

Decatur registered a high of 101 on Friday at Pryor Field, according to the National Weather Service in Huntsville. It was the 10th straight day of triple-digit temperatures, tying the Huntsville record set in 1952. Decatur records don't go back as far.

Saturday's forecast calls for temperatures around 100 again.

Some areas around Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties received a little mid-afternoon heat relief when several cells of isolated thunderstorms swept across the area, leaving trace amounts of rainfall, the NWS said.

Exceptional drought

All of North Alabama remains in an exceptional drought, and the Huntsville area is almost 21 inches below normal rainfall for the year.

Brad Bole, project coordinator for Flint Creek Cleanup, said newly planted fields on average could lose 70 percent to 80 percent of the trees. Bole helped set up the conservation program that pays farmers about $55 per acre to transform cropland and pasture into forests,

The trees are intended to stabilize soil along streams and drainage systems in Morgan County. In all, about 600 acres of pasture and cropland were planted between December and March, Bole said.

If those fields have 70 percent to 80 percent damage, the cost of replacing trees could total as much as $60,000, he said.

"Some trees planted in mid-December to January are looking all right," he said. "But trees planted in February and March are in bad shape."

Federal conservation programs and farmers would split the cost to replant trees, but Bole said they’d wait till next spring to see how many trees come back.

“Sometimes their tops will die but the root structure will come back next year,” he said.

Smith, who assists extension agents who help homeowners with landscaping and pest control issues, said that across the state residents are beginning to see trees turn brown, but that doesn’t mean they’re dead.

If its twigs are flexible and buds are firm, a browning plant probably is dropping its leaves as a relief mechanism, she said.

Even homeowners who are giving their plants plenty of water are going to see trees and shrubs suffer, Smith added.

“I think the biggest problem is not lack of water; it’s that most plants are not adjusted to extreme heat for extended periods of time,” she said.

“There’s just not many plants anywhere that can withstand that kind of heat. That’s why you see so few plants in the desert,” Smith said.

Mike Reeves of Reeves Peach Farm at Hartselle said his irrigation system has kept his trees watered, but the trees aren’t putting on growth and buds as much as they normally do.

“Like everything else, they’re just sitting there,” he said.

Furthermore, because the trees are using so much of a drought-depleted water supply, there’s probably not going to be enough water to plant strawberries in October, Reeves said.

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