Monthly Archives: January 2020

Why Do Mature Trees Suddenly Die?

Why did my mature conifer (cone bearing) or deciduous (trees that lose their leaves in the fall) trees suddenly die? Arborists often get asked this question by grieving tree owners. This question deserves a serious answer, since an unbreakable bond exists between humans and trees, and when that link is unexpectedly broken, there are negative consequences for humans and the environment. This is because trees have such a large impact on our lives and often impact all types of human activities. Moreover, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, our lives are intertwined with trees, and even depend upon them for our survival, and when we lose them there are economic, social and cultural, emotional and environmental consequences. If we understand why trees die, maybe we can proactively help to keep them alive.

So why do trees die? And if we understand the reasons why they die, perhaps through wise and knowledgeable actions on our part, we can help to keep the trees in our lives alive longer. After all, as caretakers of this planet, it is our responsibility to care for the small piece of real estate over which we’ve been given stewardship including the trees on it. Face it, the simple fact is that without trees, all animal and human life will die!

With these things in mind, many years ago, as a tree care professional—in the industry, we’re called arborists—I felt that I was taking out too many trees that I knew were savable. Therefore, I rolled up my sleeves and got the necessary education, credentials, licenses and then purchased the equipment to begin providing plant health care services in my tree care company. Since then, I have saved hundreds, if not thousands of trees from their demise. This has been a rewarding activity for me on many levels.

But along the way, I have found that there is a belief among many of my clients that all trees have a life span and eventually grow old and die. For many people, this seems to explain why their yard tree suddenly died. Yet, in my decades as an arborist, I have found this belief usually to be unfounded. Since there are so many variable factors that contribute to tree mortality, it’s often not easy to determine why a tree has died without conducting extensive and costly forensics. Suffice it to say, many of the factors listed below combine to stress a tree, and if the tree doesn’t possess a sufficient reserve of stored energy to combat its stressors, it will eventually succumb to these stressors. Almost everything that a tree does is in slow motion. It grows slowly, its metabolic processes occur slowly and it usually dies slowly as well. On occasion, a tree dies quickly (in a few weeks or months), but this is rare. Like the rest of us, a tree has a strong survival instinct and wants to live. In fact, it contains many built in mechanisms to insure that it survives come what may. So to say that a tree has a certain life span and then it just dies is a misnomer. True, some trees are able to live for hundreds, even thousands of years, while other trees are relatively short lived, by comparison. But under the right conditions and with the right care, nearly any tree you plant in your yard can outlive you and probably your grandchildren too.

The Reasons Trees Die

So now let’s discuss why trees. The following is a list of some of the more common reasons of tree mortality.

Drought. Like humans and all animal life, plants need water to survive. No water, no life. Trees suck up an immense amount of water out of the soil on a continual basis, especially during the growing season. If they don’t obtain the water they need, the go into stress mode. If this continues long enough, they will slowly die of thirst.

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January in the Garden—To Do List

This guide is tailored for the western valleys of Oregon and Washington. 

YOU can help to make the world a better, a more friendly, loving and beautiful place by being a good steward of the spot on this earth that you are privileged to be borrowing for a time—your garden. Nathan, the Treevangelist, urges you to treat your spot on this planet like your own personal Garden of Eden paradise. Then notice the joy that it will bring to you! This is your divinely mandated responsibility.  Your trees, shrubs, flowers and the wildlife in your yard will express their smiling appreciation back to you and to others as they radiate love, joy and beauty bursting forth with vibrant and verdant life. Below is a to do list to help you to do just that.

Rain, rain and more rain along with fog and dark, dreary days—welcome to winter in the western one-third of Oregon and Washington State regions. There’s not a lot to do in the garden at this time of the year after you’ve completed your late fall clean-up other than the occasional tidying around the place after the last windstorm has blown through. Oh, and don’t forget to keep the bird feeders full, and don’t neglect the hummingbirds too. Beyond that, go into hibernation mode and just sit back, relax and get caught up on your reading about gardening. While you’re at it, scroll back through this same Good News Tree Service, Inc. blog and check out any tree care articles that you may have missed. Also check out our YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvcu2lL9NpgoXQtUFYyQShw. Please enjoy!

Readers’ suggestions on how to improve this list are gladly solicited. If you, the reader, have any suggestions for additions to this month’s list, please put them in the comments section of this article, and I will add them to the list. Thank you in advance! — Nathan

Tree and Shrub Care

  • Fruit tree sanitation. To prevent possible spread of leaf diseases, rake up and remove leaves from around the base of fruit trees. 
  • Fruit trees. You can start pruning your fruit trees and continue all the way up until February. This is also a good time to reduce the height of overgrown fruit trees, since they are likely to produce fewer water sprouts now then when pruned in the spring.
  • Rake and dispose of ornamental tree leaves, or better yet, compost them and then spread the decomposed leaves back onto your shrub beds as a mulch next year.
  • Storm proof your larger trees. With the advent of winter storms and the potential damage that they may inflict upon your trees, have an ISA Certified Arborist with an ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (like Good News Tree Service, Inc.) inspect your large trees for the potential of failure due to weak root systems and defects in trunks and branches. This can be done anytime of the year, but now, before the winter storms hit, is an excellent time to proactive assess the condition of your trees for potential limb and trunk breakage.
  • Large trees: After each major weather event, check your trees for damage such as broken or hanging limbs. If you have concerns or questions about your trees, have an ISA Certified Arborist with an ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (like Good News Tree Service, Inc.) inspect your large trees for damage or the potential of failure due to weak root systems and defects in trunks and branches. 
  • Plant or transplant trees and shrubs. After the cold, seasonal rains have started is a good time to plant or transplant ornamental trees and shrubs. Cooler weather means less transplant shock to the plants, and over  the winter and spring, they will have time to begin to acclimate to their new environment before the stress of the next summer season occurs.
  • Prune your trees and shrubs. This is a good time to start pruning your deciduous trees and shrubs after the leaves have fallen and a tree’s branching structure is clearly visible making pruning easier. If you’re not sure what to do, or how to do it, call Good News Tree Service, Inc. for a consultation, pruning lessons or to have them to the pruning for you.
  • Prune coast/shore pines (Pinus contorta) and Scotch/Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris). These two pines are especially susceptible to the sequoia pitch moth whose larvae burrow into the tree trunks during the growing season (April through September) causing the trees to exude large amounts of unsightly pitch globules. While this seldom kills the tree, the bleeding of sap is not good for the overall health and vigor of the tree. It is advisable, therefore, not to prune these pine trees during the growing season, since the pruning cuts attract the moth, which then lays eggs on the tree, which hatch into tree-burrowing larvae. Pruning should be done on your pines from November to March.
  • Mulch trees and shrubs: Apply two to three inches of mulch around all trees and ornamental shrubs. This helps to fertilize the plants and feed the soil, and also protects them against weed growth and loss of water when the warmer weather returns, and helps to insulate the roots against cold weather in the winter.

Elsewhere in the Garden

  • Put slug bait around winter flowers.
  • Rake and dispose of ornamental tree leaves, or better yet, compost them and then spread the decomposed leaves back onto your shrub beds as a mulch next year.
  • Mulch your shrub beds. Put a two to three inches of mulch (e.g. bark dust, garden compost or wood chips) around perennials and other plants that might be sensitive to subfreezing weather.  Also, spread a fresh layer of mulch (e.g. bark dust, garden compost or wood chips) on all the bare dirt areas in your yard to prevent soil compaction from rains, to prevent weed growth and to enrich and help to condition your heavy clay soils. Adding a layer of mulch (several inches thick) over any tender perennial flowers, especially if the weather turns extremely cold and the ground freezes, will prevent death of flowers like dahlias.
  • Cut English ivy off of the base of trees. (This can be done any time of the year.)
  • Feed the birds. Dutifully maintain your bird feeders. As winter comes, birds have a harder time finding food.  Bring life and excitement to your backyard by turning it into a bird sanctuary. The birds will thank you for your generosity by providing you with hours of entertainment, and by eating insect pests that harm your ornamental trees and shrubs.