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Stop worrying about your lawn. It’s the trees that need your attention

Among the city-owned trees that have died in Waltham is this 80-year-old sugar maple.Kevin Thompson

With Massachusetts hit by drought, it’s not just lawns that are suffering. The region’s trees — and the people who look after them — are also under duress.

After a winter with little snow, this summer’s dry heat has been taking a particular toll on the urban canopy, according to local tree wardens.

“If trees have already been under stress, this is the year that puts them over the edge,” Waltham tree warden Kevin Thompson said Tuesday.

The US Drought Monitor, a partnership of federal and university authorities, last week categorized much of Massachusetts as having severe drought conditions. More than 140 communities have issued restrictions on non-essential outdoor water use.


In Waltham, Thompson is seeing record numbers of tree fatalities on city property, particularly among mature specimens 75 to 115 years years old. In his 20 years of monitoring trees in the state, he has never seen anything like it.

“I’ve driven by some areas with concern,” said Thompson. “Last week the trees were fine, and this week the trees were dead. It’s been very sudden.”

A variety of causes can contribute to a tree’s death. The harsh winter of 2015, followed by a very mild winter and the current drought, has taken a toll on even the strongest, most established of trees, according to Thompson. On top of the weather concerns, there has also been an increase in gypsy moth damage.

Marc R. Welch, Newton’s director of urban forestry, said the city’s mature trees have endured whirlwind seasons of drastic weather.

“Right now in my community we are not alarmed,” said Welch. “But next year, the trees will need some closer monitoring.”

Welch compares it to not eating all day and trying to catch up. And while his department is doing its best, he expects to see more adverse effects from the drought as time goes on.


“They grow for so long and live for so long,” Welch said of the trees, “that sometimes the effects you don’t see until the coming years.”

In both Newton and Waltham, newly planted trees on municipal property have been holding up, due to regular watering. They are watered at least once a week with 20 gallons of water.

However, budget constraints have kept some communities from being able to do the same.

Watertown’s tree warden, Christopher Hayward, said he needs residents to do their part as well.

“When you’re driving around you see people watering their lawn, but not the street tree they requested,” said Hayward. “I love having a nice green grass lawn too, but when you’re doing it in a drought it’s a little irresponsible.”

His department only has the budget for six watering sessions for the town’s 5,000 trees. He has already scheduled the sixth watering and will need to dip into the planting budget for the upcoming fall and spring to continue watering the most vulnerable trees throughout the summer.

Watertown plants around 160 new street trees each year. Thompson is frustrated at residents who have requested street trees to be planted in front of their homes but are not taking care of them. He sees it as mutually beneficial since the homeowners will ultimately benefit from the shade of a prospering tree.

He asks that homeowners prioritize the trees over their lawn. Even if a lawn goes brown, it will come back year after year. That isn’t necessarily the case for trees.


“We are doing the best we can, we are just asking for a little bit more help with watering,” said Hayward. “Be smart with how you’re using your water, but doing something is better than doing nothing.”

Debora Almeida can be reached at