How To Prevent The Four Symptoms Of Dying Trees

The end of June or early July is a perfect time to asses the condition of mature trees in your yard and see if you have any dying trees.  Trees should be fully leaved out now and any effects of poor culture or winter damage will be evident.  The very first thing to do is take a cool drink outside, get a good viewing spot so you can see your trees; take the long view in order to get a good look at the tops and sides of this garden monster.  Even if your trees are a little on the small side, step back and look at the entire tree.

There are four things to watch for in your trees:

  • are there new leaves,
  • are the leaves the proper size,
  • are there new twigs developing, and
  • are there any symptoms of dieback up in the branches or crown of the tree.

And If You See One Or More Of These

The first symptom is fairly straightforward.  If the tree has new leaves, it is fine. If there are no new leaves by this time of year, this isn’t a tree but instead a rather large standing pile of sawdust in the making.

Trees that have developed small leaves are usually on the way to the compost pile.  We see these small leaves as the buds develop the initial leaves but because the roots have died or there is too much damage to the trunk, vital spring energy is not available to the leaf to continue its growth spurt.  The stored energy in the bud only produces the first growth spurt and without further energy, the leaf stays small.  The tree is dead but the leaf doesn’t know it.  Eventually, the leaf will wither and die later in July.  There is nothing a gardener can do in this situation but mourn the loss.  This mostly happens because of cultural reasons and is not the symptom of a disease.  If the leaves are the proper size, evaluate the growth of the tree.

When I first planted chestnuts at the farm, I would measure the growth of the new shoots every year to see how well the tree was growing and how long I would have to wait for it to shade the lawn furniture.  On an average year, the chestnut would throw a new shoot about 14 to 18 inches long, gaining just over foot in height each year.

A tree continues to grow for its entire life and when it stops developing new shoots in the spring, the tree starts to go downhill.  Seeing how much your trees are growing will tell you if something needs to be done to bring the tree back or whether things are progressing nicely in your personal forest.

The symptom that brings fear into the heart of the homeowner is seeing dead wood up in the tree.  This is a symptom of a tree in decline. This decline could be caused by a wide variety of factors but the tree is not healthy.  Like all plant diseases, the reason for the problem will determine the cure and the chance of success.  Do note that a few dead branches up top are no reason to chop the tree down as it will quite likely continue to live for years to come and with care, you might be able to bring the tree back to health.

Tree health can be dramatically improved by taking several simple steps.

The first is to stop using a whipper-snipper around the base of the tree to cut the grass at its base. The repeated pounding of the string against bark, even mature bark, bruises the cambium layer. This cambium layer is the transport system that moves energy up and down the tree between the leaves and the roots. If you bruise this layer, the tree loses its ability to feed itself and you’ll see branches begin to die off as the tree can no longer support its top growth.  Tree care experts call this problem “whipper-snipper disease” and careless homeowners (and some lawn care companies) are to blame for the death of large trees.  If you look closely at the base of trees that have been whipper-snipped, you’ll see where the bark has been repeatedly struck.

The second step is to eliminate the grass around the base of the tree and replace it with mulch.  You might want to put a thick layer of newspapers under the mulch to stop the grass from growing through. I like this idea because it means I don’t have to dig up the grass before I mulch. Save your newspaper for a few weeks and use twenty or more overlapped sheets thick to create an almost impenetrable layer for grass shoots.  After the paper is laid down simply put an attractive organic mulch down to cover up the newspaper. The mulch will stop the need for trimming the grass against the trunk and your tree will thank you for it.  The third step is to be generous with the compost next fall.

Note that using newspaper in this limited way is practical and useful because your goal is a limited one. You’re not worried about water or nutrients this close to the trunk of the tree.
This is contrary to the advice often given to use newspaper under mulch in the flower garden – this is not recommended.

Feeding your trees is as important as feeding the rest of your garden.  And a thick layer of compost will work wonders for next year’s growth.  Tree feeder roots run out well past the edge of the tree so compost at least from the edge of the mulch to several feet out past the edge of the tree.  Your tree will store this food for next years growth spurt. 

And finally, if this year turns into a drought, do not hesitate to turn a hose on to a trickle and let this slowly soak down around the tree.  A little extra water cost will be quickly saved in the cooling action the tree provides to the house and environment. Remember that a mature tree uses several hundred gallons of water a day during the summer.

You can read other posts about growing trees and shrubs here

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