In the Garden: Historic Drought of Fall

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Beginning in mid-July 2016 and lasting until late December, Middle Tennessee experienced a historic drought. Many yards in the Nashville area did not receive a drop of rain for 4 months. It was so bad that, while doing excavation work in November, our staff dug to 36 inches before we found any moisture in the soil.

None of the vegetation in our area is accustomed to surviving in these brutal conditions. Even if you had an irrigation system running, you may find drought damage on your property this spring. Irrigation is designed to supplement natural rainfall, but not completely take the place of it. If you did not water at all, your landscape may be in real trouble.

The timing of the drought, particularly that it occurred in the fall, fooled many homeowners into thinking that dying leaves on shrubs and trees, browning evergreens and magnolias, and brown lawns were normal for the season. (Everything is supposed to turn brown for the winter, right?!)  Wrong! Many were lulled into this false sense and did not take extra care to water. These same homeowners may wake up this spring and find not only their lawn, but even very large mature trees—especially Pines, Cryptomeria, and Magnolias—completely dead. 

Here are some things to look for in determining damage.


EVERGREENS such as Leyland cypress, arborvitae, cryptomeria, pine trees, and yews that are completely brown now are probably toasted. This is also true for Southern magnolias and laurels. If there are some green branches remaining, especially new growth on the tips, they may recover. Or, they may continue to decline. Only time will tell. It is normal to have some brown shedding in the interior, but not for the plant to be completely brown, or to have brown leaf tips.

DECIDUOUS TREES (trees that normally drop their leaves in the fall) show they are in distress in several ways. With the exception of oak and beech trees, if a tree’s leaves turned brown but did not drop this fall (remained clinging to the branch) your tree is probably in serious trouble. In the spring, if your tree does not leaf out at all, it is dead. If it has multiple small new branches growing up and down the trunk, and/or a lot of new growth (suckers) at the base of the trunk, it is in distress. Some encouraging signs of good health include new buds, flowers, and leaves.

LAWNS with southern turf grasses like Bermuda and Zoysia naturally turn brown each winter when they go dormant, so they may be alright. If you had a fescue lawn (that should be green right now) and it is all brown, then it is dead. You will have to reseed or sod to have fescue grass again. It won’t come back.


CALL a landscape professional, if you are unsure, to determine what turf/shrubs/trees are in trouble. A certified arborist can evaluate your trees and remove any dead or weakened wood safely.

FERTILIZE your trees and shrubs at the appropriate time of the year, to keep them in optimal health, and to help them self-heal. If they are not too far gone, they may be saved.

INSPECT your plants and trees for signs of disease (spotted leaves or disfigured branching) and insect infestations.  Drought stress weakens plants, making them much more susceptible to attack. Begin a treatment at the first sign of damaging pests.

PRUNE out any deadwood. Shrubs and trees will continue to expend energy trying to push life back into dead branches, even when it is useless. Pruning encourages new, fresh, healthy growth that strengthens plants.

REPLACE, if necessary, plants and trees that are either dead or are so damaged that they will no longer be attractive and healthy.

WATER more, in the future. Lesson learned. If we are lucky, during the growing season, we normally get a good soaking rainfall about every five to ten days. If we do not, your plants will need extra water.—By Ann Jackson

Editor’s Note: Ann Jackson is director of sales, marketing, and creative interpretation for Turf Managers, LLC. in Nashville. An avid gardener, Ann is also a certified lawn and horticultural professional through the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and provides design services for commercial and residential landscapes and flower beds. E-mail your questions to her at

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