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Trees for Problem Landscape Sites -- Wet and Dry Sites



Authors as Published

Bonnie Appleton, Extension Specialist, Hampton Roads AREC, Virginia Tech; Galina Epelman, Graduate Student, Virginia Tech; Katherine Kilburne, Graduate Student, Virginia Tech; Roger Harris, Editorial Contributor, Virginia Tech Department of Horticulture; Kathy Sevebeck, Editorial Contributor, Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources; Dawn Alleman, Editorial Contributor, Norfolk VCE; and Lynnette Swanson, Editorial Contributor, Chesapeake VCE

To grow, all trees require air, light, water and nutrients. Some trees can survive over a wide range of climatic and soil conditions, whereas others are very site specific. Both wet and dry sites present establishment and growth challenges, making selection of the right tree for the right site very important.

Know the site's soil

When selecting trees relative to soil moisture, begin by identifying the site's soil type. Soil maps are available for most areas in Virginia (contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office). Keep in mind, however, that construction activities (compaction, cut and fill, topsoil removal) may have altered the native soil.

Soil moisture should be viewed in two major ways -- drainage down through the soil and runoff water across the site. Soil drainage is the rate at which water moves down through the soil. Drainage is influenced by soil texture (percent of sand, silt and clay) and soil structure (arrangement of soil particles). The presence of water, land slopes, impervious subsurface layers, and compacted soil surface can also affect drainage. After a rain and normal drainage, an ideal silt loam soil for growing trees would consist of 50% solid (45% mineral, 5% organic matter) and 50% pore space (25% air, 25% water).



1.gif Determine soil drainage with the "hole test."


To roughly gauge the rate of drainage for a particular soil, try the "hole test." Dig a hole approximately one foot deep and fill it with water. Time the rate (on an hourly basis) of water drainage out of the hole. If the water drains away at about one inch per hour, you have a desirable, well-drained soil. If drainage is much faster, your soil is probably high in sand, and if much slower, your soil is probably high in clay. If drainage is either very fast or very slow, consider the dry or wet soil solutions offered in this publication.

Wet sites

Wet sites are sites where water either stands for long periods of time, or where drainage is slow (on average less than 1"/hour). Wet sites also can be sites that receive considerable runoff from higher elevations. In wet soils, too much water in the soil fills the air spaces, resulting in low oxygen levels. Where oxygen is lacking, water and nutrient uptake stops, plant processes and growth cease, and trees begin to decline or die.


2.gif The presence of moss may indicate a wet or poorly drained soil.


3.gif Standing water may be an indication of either a wet site or slow drainage.

Adapting to wet sites

Many trees have adapted to growing in wet sites. For example, when growing in or around water, bald cypress produces protruding knobs ("knees") that extend above water or the saturated soil. These knobs are thought to help with air absorption into the roots. Willows and ashes, when stimulated by flooding, produce new air-filled roots to replace roots killed by excess moisture.


4.gif Bald cypress is a species very tolerant of wet sites.


5.gif Bald cypress produce knobs or "knees" that may help with air absorption.

Some tree species switch to anaerobic respiration (respiration requiring no oxygen). Anaerobic respiration produces byproducts, but trees are usually able to convert them into organic acids for use in leaf growth. Other trees, in response to flooding, produce tiny bark openings -- called lenticels -- which serve as breathing pores, allowing air into the interior of roots and branches.

Wet sites: natural and man-made

On wet sites the soil is saturated for most of the growing season except during extended drought. On moist sites the soil stays damp and is occasionally saturated. These situations can be found naturally along ponds, rivers, streams, lowlands and on sites with high water tables. To test for a high water table, dig several two-foot deep holes at the planting site and check in two to three hours. If water has collected in the holes, the water table is high.

Man-made situations also can be the cause of wet sites. Run off from pavement, roofs and other impervious structures can flood a site with excess water. Cleared and graded slopes, where natural vegetation would normally absorb excess water, may shed runoff down slope. Soil compacted by heavy machinery or even heavy foot traffic can have drainage problems because water may be unable to drain through the soil.



6.gif Eastern white pines that are growing well at the top of the man-made berm where drainage is good, but declining at the bottom of the berm due to excess drainage water.


Wet site solutions

  • Plant cleared slopes with ground covers.
  • Use mulches to slow water and help it soak into the soil.
  • Divert runoff using perforated drainpipes laid on or under the soil.
  • Dig shallow trenches or build retaining walls to channel away problem water.
  • Plant tree balls high (several inches of root ball left above ground and covered with mulch) or construct planting berms.
  • Select trees tolerant of wet sites.

Dry sites

A dry site is one on which tree water deficits are likely to be more frequent, severe or longer than is normal for the local climate. Sites become dry due to insufficient precipitation (drought) or irrigation, insufficient soil volume in the planting area, or various soil texture characteristics.



7.gif Kousa dogwood adversely affected by insufficient moisture.


Drought can be caused by less than normal rainfall. It can also be caused by hot or cold temperature extremes. In northern and western regions of Virginia, where the top several inches of soil may freeze, roots may be unable to take up water. Reduced water uptake in the winter can make trees, in particular evergreens, more vulnerable to desiccation or drying. Be sure to water in the winter if the ground is dry, including soil in containers and raised planters.



8.gif Dry site due to limited soil volume in the street tree pits. Bald cypress, that adapts well to wet sites, also adapts well to dry sites.


Most trees, and especially urban trees and trees in containers, become stressed when they have a disproportionately small volume of soil for their roots. Reduced soil volume leads to a site that dries rapidly as the root system absorbs moisture, often causing a chronic water deficit for the trees. General signs of water stress include reduced growth, poor flower or fruit production, limp, slightly curled or scorched leaves, and changes in leaf color.

Sandy soils tend to drain rapidly making the soil drier than silt loam soils. Clayey soils tend to have dry to very wet moisture extremes depending on rainfall amounts.



9.gif Dried or scorched leaf margins on kousa dogwood.


10.gif Dried tip and needles on an eastern white pine.


Adapting to water deficits

To survive prolonged water stress, trees must be able to prevent or reduce water loss from certain tissues. Common leaf adaptations include thickened waxy layers on leaf surfaces, increases in leaf thickness, and coverings of short hairs (pubescence). Some trees reduce moisture loss by closing stomates (leaf pores) or decreasing leaf surface or size of new leaves, both of which decrease the amount of water loss (transpiration). Narrow or spiky leaves of conifers enable them to survive not only the droughts of hot summers but also the cold induced droughts of winter. An extreme form of dealing with water deficits is leaf drop.

Some trees adapt to dry conditions by developing massive, spreading roots, or deep roots, either of which can enable the tree to absorb larger volumes of water. Expansive roots can be a problem in confined soil volumes.

Soil compaction

Soil compaction over a tree's roots, due to equipment operation, material storage, or paving, can prevent moisture from reaching roots. As a result of construction, the grade around a tree may be lowered, altering drainage patterns and making the site either wet or dry.

To improve soil tilth (workability) and water retention, incorporate organic matter into the top 6 to 9 inches of soil of an entire planting site at a rate of 3 cubic yards of compost or pine bark per 1,000 square feet. In sandy soils increase the rate to 5 cubic yards per 1,000 square feet. Do not incorporate sand into clayey or compacted soil -- compaction will increase and drainage decrease.

Drying winds

Drying winds can seriously increase the effects of drought. In coastal regions, winds carry both salt and sand, causing abrasions to leaves and stems as well as desiccation. Wind can damage trees suffering from lack of moisture at any season. In exposed coastal gardens, trees tolerant of both wind and salt spray include Russian olive, white poplar, eastern redcedar, and loblolly and Japanese black pines.

Dry site solutions

  • Install efficient irrigation. Drip irrigation provides more efficient water use than overhead sprinklers. Drip irrigation ranges from inexpensive "soaker" hoses to elaborate computerized systems.
  • Reduce fertilizer use during droughts. Fertilizers are salts that can further stress or kill trees if water is inadequate. Salt concentrations can build up in the soils due to decreased water availability. Even controlled release fertilizers may release much more rapidly during hot weather, causing excessive salt levels.
  • Apply mulches. Application of mulch can improvethe water status of trees. Mulches also reduce the impact of water droplets hitting the soil surface, thereby reducing soil erosion and crusting and increasing water penetration into the soil. Mulches should be applied 2" to 4" deep depending on particle size (larger particles require a thicker layer). Despite its many benefits, mulch can be harmful when applied too thickly or piled against tree trunks.
  • Water in early morning or evening. For most landscape trees approximately 1" of water (total rainfall plus irrigation) per week is sufficient. For sandy soils divide the total into two half-inch waterings per week. Don't water in the middle of the day when evaporation losses are high. Water uptake is more efficient in early morning or in the evening when trees are less stressed. Avoid light sprinkling -- slowly soak the root zone if you water with a hose.
  • Plant trees in groups instead of individually to increase the amount of unpaved surface around each tree.
  • Select trees tolerant of dry sites

    Trees for wet sites -- Deciduous trees

    Common nameLatin name
    Box elderAcer negundo
    Red mapleAcer rubrum
    Silver mapleAcer saccharinum
    Common alderAlnus glutinosa
    Downy serviceberryAmelanchier arborea
    Shadblow serviceberryAmelanchier canadensis
    River birchBetula nigra
    American hornbeamCarpinus caroliniana
    PecanCarya illinoensis
    Northern catalpaCatalpa speciosa
    Common hackberryCeltis occidentalis
    FringetreeChionanthus virginicus
    PersimmonDiospyros virginiana
    Green ashFraxinus pennsylvanica
    Thornless honeylocustGleditsia triacanthos var. inermis
    Deciduous holliesIlex decidua, I. verticillata
    SweetgumLiquidambar styraciflua
    Tulip treeLiriodendron tulipifera
    Sweetbay magnoliaMagnolia virginiana
    Dawn redwoodMetasequoia glyptostroboides
    Water tupeloNyssa aquatica
    PaulowniaPaulownia tomentosa
    London planetreePlatanus x acerifolia
    Amer. sycamorePlatanus occidentalis
    Eastern cottonwoodPopulus deltoides
    Swamp chestnut oakQuercus bicolor
    Cherrybark oakQuercus falcata
    Water oakQuercus nigra
    Pin oakQuercus palustris
    Willow oakQuercus phellos
    White weeping willowSalix alba
    Weeping willowSalix babylonica
    Bald cypressTaxodium distichum
    American elmUlmus americana

    Trees for wet sites -- Evergreen trees

    Common nameLatin name
    ChamaecyparisChamaecyparis spp.
    Japanese cryptomeriaCryptomeria japonica
    American hollyIlex opaca
    Southern magnoliaMagnolia grandiflora
    Austrian pinePinus nigra
    Loblolly pinePinus taeda
    ArborvitaeThuja spp.

    Trees for dry sites -- Deciduous trees

    Common nameLatin Name
    Amur mapleAcer ginnala
    Box elderAcer negundo
    Silver mapleAcer saccharinum
    Tatarian mapleAcer tataricum
    Ohio buckeyeAesculus glabra
    PawpawAsimina triloba
    Chinese chestnutCastanea mollissima
    Northern catalpaCatalpa speciosa
    Common hackberryCeltis occidentalis
    Red budCercis canadensis
    YellowwoodCladrastis kentukea
    FilbertCorylus spp.
    Smoke treeCotinus coggygria
    HawthornCrataegus spp.
    Russian oliveElaeagnus angustifolia
    European beechFagus sylvatica
    Green ashFraxinus pennsylvanica
    GinkgoGinkgo biloba
    Thornless honeylocustGleditsia triacanthos var. inermis
    Black walnutJuglans nigra
    GoldenraintreeKoelreuteria paniculata
    Flowering crabappleMalus spp.
    Chinese pistachePistacia chinensis
    London planetreePlatanus x acerifolia
    Amer. sycamorePlatanus occidentalis
    Hardy orangePoncirus trifoliata
    Purpleleaf plumPrunus cerasifera
    Callery pearPyrus calleryana
    Black locustRobinia pseudoacacia
    Red oakQuercus rubra
    Japanese pagoda treeSophora japonica
    Lacebark elmUlmus parvifolia
    Japanese zelkovaZelkova serrata

    Trees for dry sites -- Evergreen trees

    Common nameLatin name
    Atlas cedarCedrus atlantica
    Deodara cedarCedrus deodara
    Leyland cypressX Cupressocyparis leylandii
    Chinese hollyIlex cornuta
    'Nellie R. Stevens' hollyIlex x 'Nellie R. Steven's'
    Chinese juniperJuniperus chinensis
    Eastern redcedarJuniperus virginiana
    Colorado sprucePicea pungens
    Austrian pinePinus nigra
    Longleaf pinePinus palustris
    Loblolly pinePinus taeda
    Japanese black pinePinus thunbergiana
    Live oakQuercus virginiana


Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.


Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.


May 1, 2009