Common Tree Deaths and What to Do If Your Tree Dies

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What I call “dog tags”. A diverse array of plants that didn’t make it. Included are 7 avocados.

Growing trees requires a certain kind of belief about the future. Primarily that the future will be more abundant and better than before we planted them. This unsurprisingly is why when our trees die it actually has an impact. A substantial poundage of nuts and fruits for years to come that were on its way to feeding our families and neighbors will no long occur.  Annual vegetables in a garden do not provide this same experience.

Alas in such an experience one can actually grow as a person and as a steward of the earth much more than many others. After having experienced many tree deaths, I am starting to see the pay offs of getting it wrong, just so I can get it right.

It turns out there are many things that you now know, and can do better when a tree dies. When a tree dies, we have the luxury of taking a step back and seeing what is really going on, as we now have a milestone to point to about our growing conditions and how we’ve interacted with nature. Once you start down the path of understanding how trees grow, particularly in their native environments, commonalities and patterns emerge rather quickly.

Through rapid iteration and seeing the growth of hundreds of trees, this is the most common tree deaths we’ve seen.

Most Common Tree Deaths

#1. Over Watering

Yes, believe it or not but without a doubt the most common death seen of trees, particularly new trees, is through over watering. Trees are some of the hardiest species on the planet, and have withstood very difficult conditions for eons, and yet they have not been able to adapt to the human’s ability to over water.

Those who live in arid climates, this may not likely apply to you, but many people who live in humid climates (nearly all temperate climates) do not have the excuse. Those who live in the southeast in particular need to learn this lesson, simply by looking around in any direction of nature in the south will provide these clues. There are trees, of all statures, lifespans, and hardiness everywhere you look. Teeny-tiny saplings everywhere, whom never received mulch let alone a hose, are growing even in the largest “droughts on record”. This should clue us into the water hardiness of trees.

The fact remains that trees have evolved to handle periods of drought, and in many cases, it can be good for competition for them. The only trees I have ever lost due to not watering, were trees that had a very poor root system with minimal if any fibrousness to their roots. The fact remains that if a tree died because of lack of water, something very very unnatural was occurring, like transplanting a tree with only large taproots. (This can be seen in pecans and nut trees like chestnuts.)

We believe that over watering your trees, gives them a false sense of security that is deadly in the real world. The real world doesn’t always water regularly.

When is Watering Too Much?

In general if you’re watering a tree or bush more than once a week, or likely more than once a month you’re over watering. The exception may be in September-October when it can be exceptionally dry for weeks. Having said that, that should only be an issue if the tree is just establishing (first year) and if planted late rather than the ideal time in Fall/Winter. (I completely I understand late plantings, sometimes timing and access to plants doesn’t happen until after “ideal times”). Let your eyes and hands be the judge.

How to Avoid

The best way to avoid this is by watering plants much much less than you might be inclined to. Even if they struggle a little bit for their first year, water is not necessarily going to help them. The exception to this rule might apply to bare-rooted trees which are less capable of handling the first year of transplanting. Having said that, my recommendation is to probably use less bare rooted trees, and instead find quality container grown trees.

#2. It Did Not Belong “There”

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Avocado. Dead as a doornail.

When examining many trees that have died, I may not have been able to fully articulate what was going on there, but its clear something was just not right. I know this sounds very nebulous but this is the realities that are presented, but when they show themselves they are very VERY stark. Sometimes planting a certain type of tree in a particular location, was just a very very bad idea. This can occur from the location pooling water and drowning the tree, planting trees with absolutely no shade, and even planting in an area where somebody runs it over unsuspecting with a car or a mower.

Sometimes the Soil Just “Ain’t Right”

While many of these are logical, others are not so easy to understand, but is clear that something is happening. My hunch is the soil “just ain’t right”, but I can’t say anything more than that and experience will tell this tale. One such case for us was with Avocados. We tried planting around 10 avocados over 2 years in an area on the edge of a forest and near a live oak so that it might be able to protect them in the winter. What resulted was every single tree dying, and only 2 of the rootstocks living to see another day. Its not clear what the issue is, but at least in those locations, AVOCADOS ARE A NO GO.

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Only the rootstock remains of this avocado.

The primary lesson learned here is, find out what works where you live, and when things die especially in large numbers really rethink what’s going on.

Another of these has been Almonds. The three varieties we have tried have either had extremely weak vigor or have died. There are now chestnuts planted next to the surviving ones to put a bit of spirit of competition in them.

How to Avoid

Try your best to consider where trees may like to grow. Most trees like drained areas and to be located in and around other trees rather than out in the open on their own. Having said that, sometimes you just can’t avoid knowing that a location is a bad spot until you’ve lost some trees, so I would just consider this one a rite of passage.

#3. It was a very weak tree. It is likely it was grown that way.

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A replacement pear where an almond once stood.

Every time I see trees that people buy, I am aghast at how awful they are. The vigor isn’t there, the form is horrendous, and the trees act stunted at every corner. When I see these trees in the hands of others I can’t control the desire to blurt out how awful the tree is. Observing the nursery industry has shown me just how many nurseries grow for themselves rather than their customers. It is a sad state of the nursery business but that is where it is. Limited and questionable varieties, weak growing trees, bad branching, and encircled roots are the norm. We even were recently told that it is common for growers to spray their trees with a dwarfing agent intentionally so the tree would stay within the established sizes for selling to big box stores.

Many of the trees we have lost, were the weakest trees of the bunch. They had minimal and confused root systems which seemed to be the primary cause. Instead of being upset at these trees, we are thankful they are gone, and have opened up new spaces for other trees and teaching us a good lesson to buy quality plants.

How to Avoid

Examine the nursery stock that you are buying. It is a good assumption that most plants purchased at Home Improvement stores (Lowes / Home Depot / etc) are of a very poor quality. This may not always be the case, but generally it is especially when we’re speaking about pome and stone fruits.

There are a number of online outlets that can provide good trees. We recommend reading some online reviews about a nursery before purchasing. Just remember that strong life forms in life survive, while weak ones do not, so it is a high probability that the tree you received, just wasn’t strong enough to survive, no matter how pretty it was at the store.

#4. Bad Timing / Difficult Conditions for Vulnerable Plants

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We lost something like 45 seedling grafted apple trees recently. They dried out

This situation occurs in the first year or transitioning into the second year of a plant’s life. When transplanting trees, the health of the trees can be kind of weak. This can make them very vulnerable to difficult conditions like lack of water. Much of this can be magnified by planting trees outside of the premium planting window (November-April). Make no mistake you can definitely plant trees outside of this window in most humid locations but this can only be done with certain kind of plants with good established health. The plants you really want to avoid planting from May-October are bare rooted trees.

Bare Rooted Trees are Brittle

Bare rooted trees commonly do not have any feathered roots and are extremely susceptible to drying out because they have lost established connections to any microbiology and soil. The drying out is not nearly an issue in Fall, Winter, and Early spring where there is significantly less evaporation occurring.

Container Grown Trees Usually Have Stronger Starting Roots

Container grown trees on the other hand have and are continually establishing their own ecology inside the container, which when planted out gives them a safe haven for moisture retention. Their more fibrous roots and pre-established ground connections give them a significantly stronger advantage.

This poor plant was stuck in a pot for far too long.

One major exception to this is found in poorly grown container trees that have been in pots for too long, especially typical nursery pots. These trees develop pot bound roots. The picture I have here is a horrendous case of it. The best bet you can have when you come across these plants is pulling apart the root systems until they’re no longer developing on top of and around each other.

Note: It is important to note that I am not necessarily stating that the reason of death in these cases is lack of water. Lack of water is a symptom of a larger issue and that is that a young tree does not have the basic connections it needs to survive, with this being mostly bare rooted trees, or very small container trees planted in well drained areas in the middle of summer (I have even done that WITH success). Less water will force the tree to FIND water and establish connections for getting access to and retaining water.

Just like muscles need to be challenged to grow, so do plants.

#5. Your Tree is Not Actually Dead

“I’m not dead.”    “Well, he will be soon, he’s very ill.”    “I’m getting better”

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This tree is alive, notice the green nick.

It is very possible that your tree is in fact NOT dead. Sometimes when we aren’t observant enough we may mistakenly think that a tree is dead when in fact it is attempting to save itself by going dormant during rough conditions.

Need to Figure Out If It’s Alive? Give it the ol’ Thumbnail Test!

No worries, there is an extremely easy test to determine if a tree is still alive, I call it the thumbnail test.

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This tree is dead. In the middle is a small brown mark where I thumbnailed it.

Very simply go to the tree and starting from the tips down to the base of the tree use your thumbnail to attempt to pull back a little bit of bark to see if you can see any green. If you see any green at all, then the tree is still alive, it is just dormant.

You may find that the tree has killed off the top but is still alive lower in the base of the tree so make sure to try the thumbnail test around the base of the trunk to see if the tree is still alive. You will instantly know from the tactile sensations that the tree is not alive because the outside will usually be dried and partly shriveled and not possible to chip away easily the bark.

What to Do If/When Your Tree(s) Die

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There used to be 15 apple tree starts here, now there may only be 3. This may have been the case of too difficult of conditions for most (but not all) young trees. Only the strongest survive!

The first thing to do when a tree dies, is try not to get too bothered by it which can be a difficult task the first few times around. This is part of the process of finding great plants that fit your site well. The death of a tree opens up another possibility for selecting a better tree (of the same or different type) giving you another chance to get things right. Dust yourself off, stand proud and say “NEXT!”

The Most Obvious Answer: Replace It

Simply replace the tree that has died and you will be surprised at the likelihood of the tree doing well. Depending on how the tree died, you may go ahead and replace it with an exact replacement. If that same tree dies in a similar way as the previous one, then you know something is up. And if so, plant something else there!

I assure you, something WILL grow in any location.

Write Down Your Observations

Sometimes writing things down does a lot of good. Just the process of stopping for a moment and thinking through what is going on can help you determine the next best course of action. Writing down what you have seen up until this point, and trying to establish what may have been either the cause or aggravating factor can help you avoid mistakes in the future.

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This citrus died to the ground and has re-sprouted. Perfect for grafting another citrus.

Graft Over the Living Roots

If your tree has only died from the top up and has left its roots still growing, you have the options of grafting over the top of what is there already. The benefits of this are that the tree does not need to be dug up and replaced but can be grafted over the top of. I have already discussed the benefits of learning grafting, and we believe that every family should have at least one grafter available.

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This used to be a lime, it will soon become a kumquat.

It is very common to see citrus that have died from the graft union up. Growing in its place will likely be a very spiky plant. If you see this, you’ll know your citrus needs to be grafted over or replaced.

Conclusion

I must really stress that you should trust your instincts and your ability to determine whether or not the tree died because the location wasn’t right for it, or whether or not the tree itself was just weak. If you have watched your tree’s progress up until this point you can usually have an idea what is going on. It is important to plant all sorts of different trees and see how they respond to your site, patterns will indeed emerge.

The long term benefits of finding a great assemblage of fruit and nut trees specific to your site significantly outweigh the costs associated with finding and trialing different trees. There are a plethora of different trees available, growing techniques, and providers of which all factor into the success of your trees. Losses are nothing more than great learning experiences.

Having said that, I might need to go back to the drawing board about how I might be able to grow avocados with better success. I am now 0 for 10.

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