How to Save a Dying Tree

Stately and elegant, trees are an integral part of many landscapes and planting schemes. Providing structure, shade and color, many specimens are also a valuable source of food and shelter for wildlife. All of these benefits means that trees are a valuable part of your garden’s ecosystem. But what happens if your tree starts to look sick? And, more importantly, can you learn how to save a dying tree?

A dying tree can look unsightly. As well as harboring diseases that could potentially spread around your garden, a sickly specimen may also become unsafe. Luckily, learning how to save a dying tree is not as complicated as it sounds.

This article is designed to teach you how to identify and save a dying tree. While many of the how to save a dying tree methods outlined below are easy to implement they are also pleasingly effective, meaning that you will be able to save your precious specimens before it is too late.

1 Healthy trees add interest
Healthy specimens add height, interest and structure to a landscape as well as providing a home for wildlife. 

How to Identify a Dying Tree

Before you can learn how to save a dying tree you must first be able to recognize the signs of disease and decay.

A dying tree usually has a noticeable bend. This is because the roots are losing their strength and are slowly being pulled out of the ground by the weight of the trunk and branches above. Young specimens can naturally develop a bend, particularly if planted in an exposed or windy position. A Dalen Tree Stake Kit is an easy way to keep young saplings upright and healthy.

A leaning specimen is very difficult to save. Instead you should have it removed before it falls over and causes damage to properties or structures or physical harm.

Extremely dried up wood is another sign that a specimen is dying. Diseased branches may be lifeless and crack easily when pressure is applied. Healthy branches should be pliable and have some elasticity. This elasticity enables the branches to tolerate exposure to survive strong winds. Branches lacking in flexibility is a worrying sign.

Branches that sag under their own weight, particularly if those belonging to willows or other specimens that tend to produce lots of heavy foliage, are concerning. Branches that appear weak and seem to be sinking under the weight of sub-branches and foliage, particularly after rainfall, are a sure sign that your plant is unwell. If this is the case, inspect the joints where sub-branches split from the main branch. Weak looking joints are another ominous sign. Any of these symptoms spread over a large area of the plant means that it is probably dying and will be difficult to save.

As well as the branches, the condition of the trunk can also tell you how healthy a specimen is. A trunk with a continuous crack is a worrying sign. Dying or unwell trunks may also seem soft. Signs of decay, such as fungi or mushrooms around the base of the trunk may also develop.

A dying tree can look a lot like it is already dead, it may appear dried up and lifeless. Even during the height of spring and summer there may be little to no green foliage visible.

The contrast between a dying tree and a healthy specimen is stark. For diseased specimens, any foliage that is in place can seem shrivelled or crunchy. Some sickly plants may have branches that are covered in healthy looking leaves, while other branches have little to no foliage.

Plants shedding their leaves and flowers during the spring or summer months is also a sign of concern. Leaf drop in the fall or winter is perfectly normal for many types of plants.

A key part of knowing how to save a dying tree is knowing what is normal for your particular specimens. Do a little research on your plants. This enables you to easily spot any abnormal signs as soon as they develop.

2 Lack of foliage
Specimens losing their foliage during the spring or fall may be a sign of a serious problem.

If you are concerned about the health of the plant, inspect the trunk and branches for cankers. These are sores that are caused by fungi or bacteria, infecting the tree. After developing, cankers leave open wounds that allow other parasites and diseases to enter. Prune away any areas that have visible cankers as soon as possible. This helps to prevent the issue from spreading and also reduces the stress that the tree is under.

As you will see during the course of this article it is possible to learn how to save a dying tree. Sadly, a specimen that is completely dead is rarely saveable. At best you may be able to encourage new roots to spawn from near the base, or revive the existing root system, encouraging a little new growth at the base of the tree. However this can be difficult to achieve.

Is My Tree Dormant or Dying?

A dormant tree is one that is in a state of preservation or low growth. This is similar to hibernation. Dormant specimens can exhibit some of the same signs as a diseased or dying tree. In both cases leaves wilt or shrivel up and fall from the branches.

In late fall or winter it can be particularly difficult to identify if the plant is dormant or unwell. As outlined above, if you are concerned there are a few things that you can do, such as bending the branches to test for flexibility, to determine how healthy the plant is.

If the branch does break, look inside to see if there are any signs of life. You can also scratch a small section of the bark away to look for green growth. 

If you are in doubt, consult an arborist. An arborist is a trained professional, essentially a tree doctor. They are able to run species specific tests to identify any problems and advise what preventive or curative treatments you should undertake. As well as being able to highlight diseases that are active in your area, arborists can also advise on general plant care and pruning.

Finally, a trained arborist also knows which chemicals you can use in your area as well as local deforestation laws. Should pruning or, if you cannot save the plant, removal be necessary, an arborist is usually qualified to climb tall specimens and use the correct, heavy equipment.

How to Identify and Treat a Problem

Before you learn how to save a dying tree you must first work out what is wrong with it. While there are a few basic amendments that you can make if the issue persists, or if you are unsure what the cause of the problem is, you should consult with a trained arborist. As outlined above, this is a worthwhile investment. An arborist is able to identify the issue as well as giving further advice on how to save a dying tree.

Knowing how to identify what is causing the issue is vital if you want to learn how to save a dying tree. Healthy established specimens are resistant to most issues, except for very severe infections.

The following are common causes of disease or illness in plants and can be easily amended.

Amending Issues Caused by Incorrect

One of the easiest actions when learning how to save a dying tree is to amend your watering routine.

All plants can suffer and start to struggle if they are watered too frequently or not often enough. While many people known that newly planted specimens require regular watering until they are established, people don’t often realize that even mature specimens can be greatly affected by either too much or too little water,

Planting your specimen in well-draining soil is vital. Well-draining soil is particularly important during wet periods. If drainage is poor, the soil can quickly become waterlogged.

Roots becoming soft and soggy are a sign that either the soil is too wet or that the plant is overwatered. Certain types of moss or mold on the soil around the base of the trunk are also signs of overwatering as is a lack of grass, if you have not already cleared the grass away before planting.

Soil in a state of constant saturation should be amended as soon as possible. Working in well-rotted compost, coarse grit or even sand helps to lighten the soil, improving drainage. Additionally, if your plants have a dense canopy or lots of thick foliage, prune them back so that more sunlight can reach the soil. This helps the soil to dry out more quickly after rainfall.

During dry spells aim to soak the soil evenly around the plant with a garden hose for about 2 minutes. The soil should be wet but not overly soggy.

An automated sprinkler system is a great way to ensure that your specimens are watered regularly. The CARPARTHEN Drip Irrigation System is a versatile solution, appropriate for a range of conditions. An irrigation system not only keeps your plants healthy and hydrated, it also helps you to cut down on your water usage by ensuring that the water goes straight to the root of the plants. This means that less water is wasted during watering.

3 Irrigation
An irrigation system helps to keep plants healthy.

If you struggle to work out when to water your plants, a soil moisture sensor is a useful investment.

Mulching Plants Correctly

Mulching is a useful way to enrich the soil around growing plants. A good organic mulch such as bark or compost, enriches the soil around your plant, giving the plants a nutritional boost. Helping the soil to retain moisture, the nutritional boost that a layer of mulch provides can also help to save a dying tree.

When mulching, don’t apply too much. Depending on the material you are using, the layer of mulch should be between 1.5 and 2 inches thick. Too much mulch can smother the roots of a plant, slowly strangling the plant. A thick layer of mulch can also attract potentially harmful insects, bacteria or fungi to the base of the trunk, causing infestations and infections.

If they are not already exposed, gently dig away the top layer of soil, revealing the top of the root system. Apply the mulch so that it touches the roots, you may need to use a rake to spread the mulch evenly. Be careful when using the rake not to damage the roots. While the mulch can be applied directly to the roots it should never touch the trunk. Like applying too much mulch, this can cause disease to form.

A good mulch, one that contains organic materials such as straw, compost, and bark chips, is a vital tool when learning how to save plants. As well as enriching the soil and improving moisture retention mulch also helps to combat fungal and bacterial infections.

4 Mulch the soil
Mulching the soil around a plant is beneficial. Ensure that the mulch doesn’t touch the trunk or any exposed roots. 

Applying the Appropriate Fertilizer

Fertilizer helps to promote healthy growth and development. It can also be used to amend soil that is lacking in nutrients. Keeping your soil light, airy and balanced is a vital part of cultivating a healthy garden.

A soil test kit tells you what, if any, nutrients your soil is lacking. This enables you to select the appropriate organic fertilizer to make the necessary amendments. Amending poor soil can also help to boost plants, meaning that organic fertilizers can play a key role in your quest to learn how to save a dying tree.

When applying fertilizer, avoid fertilizing too close to the trunk. Only ever apply the recommended dose. Try to apply the fertilizer as evenly as possible to the entire root system. The root system can spread up to 3 times the radius of the branch canopy.

Be careful not to over fertilize your plants. Like applying too much mulch, over fertilizing can attract harmful insects and bacteria. It may also burn the roots, particularly if the fertilizer is applied directly to an exposed section of the root system. Lighten the amount of fertilizer you apply as you approach the trunk and the top of the root system.

Pruning Your Plants

A key part of knowing how to save a dying tree is knowing how to prune the specimen correctly. Pruning too much or at the wrong time of year can cause stress and may do more harm than good.

If you are pruning away diseased or damaged branches, be sure to research your specimen before starting. Many diseases have a recommended pruning technique. This ensures that all the diseased sections have been removed. If you fail to do this the disease will continue to spread and the plant may struggle to survive.

In general, when pruning, aim to remove any visibly diseased areas. This should stop the problem from spreading. Remember to always use sharp tools and to sterilize your tools before and after using. Cleaning tools correctly helps to prevent disease from spreading around your garden.

5 Pruning
Regularly pruning plants helps to keep them healthy. Pruning also helps to prevent disease from spreading.

As well as removing diseased and broken branches, regularly pruning plants helps to improve airflow, preventing diseases such as powdery mildew. For taller specimens, pole saws make pruning an easy job.

When learning how to save a dying tree by pruning, try to avoid severely pruning the specimen. This can shock the plant which can prove fatal if the plant is already stressed.

Common Diseases and How to Treat Them

When learning how to save a dying tree, many of the steps outlined above can solve the issue. However, sometimes the problem is caused by a more severe disease. The following are some of the more serious problems that you may encounter when learning how to save a dying tree.

Chestnut Blight is caused by the cryphonectria parasitica pathogen. As it develops, Chestnut Blight causes sunken cankers, or orange-colored spots, and sometimes yellow spores to form on the trunk or branches. Trained arborists can treat the conditions with a soil compress cure or a hypovirulence transfer.

One of the most common issues, Powdery Mildew is caused by Erysiphales fungi. Typically starting on the lower branches, before spreading up the plant, powdery mildew is identified by the powdery white layer it covers leaves and fruit in. This can turn gray or black if left untreated. Many fungicides can be used to treat this disease. Should your plants develop powdery mildew, our complete powdery mildew guide explains how to treat the disease as well as providing tips on preventing the issue from returning.

Causing the bark of the trunk to split open, Sudden Oak Death is triggered by the phytophthora ramorum pathogen. A dark brown sap weeps from the open wound and eventually foliage and new shoots fade in color and wilt. Sudden Oak Death can be treated by spreading phosphonate-based surfactants onto the trunk. A complete course, necessary to cure infections, takes about 5 weeks.

6 Resin
Sap seeping from open wounds could indicate Sudden Oak Death.

Dutch Elm Disease is one of the most well known diseases. Caused by ascomycete microfungi, Dutch Elm Disease is spread by insects such as the American bark beetle. A quick spreading disease which can quickly reach the root system, Dutch Elm Disease causes branches and leaves to yellow and wilt. Often starting at the top of the plant before working its way down to the base, to treat Dutch Elm Disease you must prune away any infected limbs. A fungicide, applied by injection, is one of the most effective ways to treat the disease.

Fire Blight is caused by the bacterial pathogen erwinia amylovora. It is a disease that mainly affects fruit trees, giving them the appearance of being burnt. It can also affect many other varieties, including Crabapples and Hawthorns.

Specimens suffering from Fire Blight can also blacken and shrink in size. One of the easier diseases to treat, prune away affected areas and apply a Fire Blight Spray or antibiotics such as streptomycin or terramycin onto the affected area. It may take more than one course of treatment to fully cure the issue.  

Additional Tips for How to Save a Dying Tree

Regular fertilizing helps to keep specimens healthy. During the dry winter months, plants in good or healthy soil require no fertilization. While they are dormant the plants may still appreciate a dose of phosphorus and potassium. A liquid solution with a 0-20-20 balance watered directly to the roots of the plant gives a nutritious boost.

When mowing the grass, try to avoid running the roots over with the mower. Cutting roots can create openings for fungi and bacteria to enter the system of the plant. For the same reason you should avoid using weed killer near the plants.

7 Trees
Healthy specimens are a fabulous addition to the garden. 

Finally, an important part of learning how to save a dying tree is learning how to be realistic about your chances. While you can learn how to save a sick specimen, it is pointless trying to save one that is already dead. Accepting this and removing the specimen will save you time and money in the long run.

Many of the tips outlined above should save a drying tree unless the issue is really serious. In this case, or if you are at all unsure, an arborist should be consulted.

Keeping your plants healthy and happy helps them to withstand most issues. Replacing dead specimens can be costly and time consuming. It can also take years for a sapling to develop into a mature specimen, fully filling the space once more. Knowing how to save a dying tree is not only a useful skill, but it can save you time and money whilst keeping your garden looking colorful and healthy.

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