WHY ARE THE EVERGREENS DYING?
GARDEN TIPS – Written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Published June 12, 2016
I noted earlier this year that our last three summers have been abnormally hot with record breaking heat. Even before I started getting calls about dying arborvitae, pines, cedars, and other conifers, I predicted that the stress caused by extreme heat and inadequate watering practices was going to lead to the decline of many area trees. We can not do anything about the weather, but we can try to avoid the same problem in the future by reviewing the contributing factors.
Before we do that, let’s talk about the needles on conifers. While we call trees with needles “evergreens,” they do shed or drop their oldest needles ever year. Evidence of this is the bed of needles underneath pine trees. This is not a problem for healthy trees that are producing a new set of needles each year. These new needles persist on a tree for a year or more. Depending on the species, pines will hold their needles for two or more years and spruces for five years or more. However, if a conifer is stressed or its health is compromised by insects or disease, the production of needles will be reduced or stop altogether. This stress can also lead to the browning and shedding of more than just the oldest needles. As a result, a tree will have fewer and fewer green needles, a sign of its decline.
Drought: We are in a region with very limited precipitation, making adequate irrigation essential to growing healthy trees. Many homeowners assume that their trees are getting enough water, but they do not check the soil moisture in the tree’s root zone to make sure.
The water absorbing roots of most landscape trees are within the top 12 to 18 inches of soil. It is this zone that should be kept moist with deep watering. Watering trees just with the lawn for 15 to 20 minutes once or twice a day may not be enough to moisten the soil to the needed depth. It of course depends on how much water is being applied, weather conditions, and the type of soil. The only way you will know if the soil is moist enough is to use a trowel to dig down and check.
It is also important to moisten the soil where the water absorbing roots are located. They are not close to the trunk or under the canopy of mature trees. They are located at and beyond the canopy or outermost spread of the branches called the “drip-line.” It is to this area that water should be applied.
Heat Stress: We can not offer much relief from the heat to established trees, but when planting new trees we should consider planting trees that are well adapted to hot summer weather. If you plant a species that is not well suited to our climate, select the site carefully to provide it with protection from sun, heat, and wind. On younger and smaller trees, mulch the root zone with three or four inches of wood chips or bark to keep the roots cooler and to maintain soil moisture.
Oh my, I have come to the end and I have not had the chance to talk about soil compaction and other factors contributing to local conifers turning brown. More next week…