tree pruning

How to Save a Dying Tree

It’s a rare event that a tree gets sick. If you’re wondering how to save a dying tree, you’re one of the unlucky, but it’s not a random roll of the dice. Once established and mature, most trees can fend off disease, problems associated with insects, and extreme weather conditions. But once a tree’s health is compromised, it becomes vulnerable to all of the above problems, making it crucial to act as soon as possible. I’ll help you identify the problem and provide some actionable steps you can do to restore your tree to full health. 

First and foremost, you need to confirm that your tree is dying. Below this section, I list the signs of a dying tree that will help you confirm the problem. Second, you need to identify the specific problem. Sometimes, taking the general steps in this section is enough to help the tree get enough strength to ward off its illness. Other times you’ll need to apply some specific actions, which we point out below.

These can include pesticides, restoring macronutrients to the soil, and more. In the worst-case scenario, you can consult a professional arborist.

7 Signs Your Tree is Dying

Trees are valuable assets to a landscape. Not only do they provide aesthetics, but these towering plants also offer shade and shelter for wildlife and other plants. Sometimes a dying tree is obvious, with its leaves turning brown in the summer or branches riddled with holes from wood-boring pests. But it’s not always clear when trees are in poor health, making it difficult to address, especially when a dead or dying tree is located near a building or home. Broken limbs from a dying tree can cause injuries to people and pets and have the potential to lead to costly repairs if it lands on your home or car. Keep an eye out for these seven signs that you may have a dying tree so you can take care of it before it does damage to your property.

The tree has brown and brittle bark or cracks.

As the tree is dying, the bark becomes loose and falls off a dying tree. The tree may also have vertical cracks or missing bark. “Check for deep splits in the bark that extend into the wood of the tree or internal or external cavities,” advises Matt Schaefer, Certified Arborist of The Davey Tree Expert Company, the largest residential tree care company in North America and the first tree care company in the United States. Cracks often create a weakness that can cause damage in storms or other weather events.

There are few healthy leaves left.

Look for branches that lack lush green leaves for deciduous trees and show only brown and brittle leaves during the growing season. They will also have dead leaves still clinging well into the winter instead of dropping to the ground. Coniferous evergreens will start to show red, brown or yellow needles or leaves when it’s stressed or dying.

The tree has an abundance of deadwood.

A couple of dead branches or dead wood doesn’t necessarily mean you have a dying tree. (Keeping a regular pruning schedule during the dormant season will keep your trees healthy and strong.) However, an increased prevalence of deadwood can indicate that it is a sick or dying tree. “Dead trees and branches can fall at any time,” Schaefer warns. This can potentially be a hazard to you and your home.

It’s a host to critters and fungus.

Pests such as bark beetles and carpenter ants live in trees under stress or are in the process of dying. These pests prefer to live in dead, weakened, or dying hosts. As for fungal or bacterial infections, look for cankers (discoloured areas or depressed places on the bark) or mushrooms growing on the ground at the tree’s base or on the tree itself. These are indications of rot in the roots or trunk. “In time, decay will extend further within the tree, leading to structural problems,” Schaefer says.

The tree shows signs of root damage.

Since roots run deep underground, determining damage isn’t always easily visible. If you’ve had recent excavation or construction projects near the tree, look out for any changes in the tree’s health since that time that might suggest the roots were damaged in the process. Likewise, if your tree has a shallow and/or partially exposed root system, pay attention to subtle changes that might suggest exposure to extreme elements and poor soil compaction have affected the vitality of the roots. Some signs of root damage include thinning foliage, poor yearly growth, undersized yellow leaves, dead branches, and wilted brown leaves during the growing season.

It develops a sudden (or gradual) lean.

“Odd growth patterns may indicate general weakness or structural imbalance,” Schaefer explains. In general, trees that lean at more than 15 degrees from vertical indicate wind or root damage. Large trees that have tipped in intense winds seldom recover and will eventually die.

The tree fails the scratch test.

Right beneath the dry, outer layer of bark is the cambium layer. If the tree still has life, it will be green; it is brown and dry in a dead or dying tree. You can use a fingernail or a pocket knife to remove a small strip of exterior bark to check the cambium layer. You may need to repeat the test over several areas of the tree to determine if the whole tree is dead or just a few branches.

10 Simple Steps On How to Revive a Dead or Dying Plant

If your tree is sick or only part of it is dying, you may still be able to save it with the help of an arborist. First, identify the problem: A sick tree will display similar signs as a dying or dead tree but not as widespread. “Although defective trees are dangerous, not all of them need to be removed immediately, and some defects can be treated to prolong the life of the tree,” Schaefer says. Contacting an arborist as soon as you notice any signs of a dying tree will give you a better chance of saving it. An arborist has the training and knowledge required to diagnose and successfully treat tree problems.

Step 1: Look for signs of life

When it comes to plants, “dead” is a relative term. It may look like your plant is a goner, but that may not be the case when you take a closer look. If there’s any green left on the plant, you might still be in business. “Any signs of green on the stem mean there’s a chance you’ll be able to bring it back to life,” says Valentino.

You should also check the roots. As the plant’s support system, they provide a lot of information about the state of its overall health. Translation: Even if the visible parts of the plant are a mess, the roots may still be receiving enough nutrients and water to keep it going. “Healthy roots should appear plump and be white to tan in colour with white tips,” says Jennifer Morganthaler, an agriculture instructor at Missouri State University. “The roots should still be alive and have a chance to recover for any of these tips to work to save the planet.” If you find signs of life, the next step is figuring out what went wrong and how to revive your plant.

Step 2: Check if you’ve overwatered.

Plants need water to survive and thrive, but it’s possible to give a plant too much water. How can you tell? “Overwatered plants will have brown or yellow wilted leaves with moist soil,” says Valentino. “This will affect the roots, which can start to rot.” If you’ve been giving your plant too much water, you will need to make some changes—ASAP. “Move the plant out of direct sunlight and stop watering until the soil dries out,” advises Morganthaler. “If the soil is soggy, you may want to change the soil and the pot.” From there, do a little research. Look up your plant and its watering preferences, and make sure to follow that information to a T in the future.

Step 3: Check if you’ve underwatered.

Just like overwatering, it’s also easy to underwater—and for many people, a likely scenario. What are the signs of a thirsty plant? “The plant will begin to wilt,” notes Morganthaler. “Leaves will start to dry out and brown at the tips and then turn brown, die, and drop off. The soil will also crack and pull away from the edges of the pot.”

Of course, water is the answer here, but you have to go about watering a dying plant in the right way. “If a plant has been severely underwatered, a quick way to revive it is to let it soak in water for a few hours,” says Vickie Christensen, master gardener and plant doctor at Léon & George. “Many plants go from droopy and sad to beautiful, lush, and perky in just one day with this method!”

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From there, it’s all about regular TLC. “Water more often, and give the plant the same amount of water each time,” Morganthaler advises. “Make sure to give the water time to soak down to the roots.” A soil moisture meter can help you monitor the soil’s moisture—and make sure you’re on the right track for your specific plant.

Step 4: Remove dead leaves

Plants that are deteriorating will likely have dead leaves, and you’ll need to get rid of them. Be ruthless: If leaves are completely brown, they’re not returning; you want to focus on new growth instead. Remove them, snip the dead leaves with a pair of plant shears or scissors, or gently pinch the dead leaves with your fingertips. Typically, dead leaves will come off the stem easily, but use a pair of shears if you have to tug.

Step 5: Trim back the stems

Of course, green is good. Anything else? Not so much. To that end, you’ll want to trim stems back to just the green tissue. “Trim back the dead leaves, and then take off dead bits of the stem as well,” says Valentino. “Ideally, you want to take it back to the healthiest bits of the plant, but if the stems are dead, then leave at least two inches of them above the soil.”

This is also a good time to change the soil—and even the pot. Morganthaler recommends repotting the plant in a larger container or pot at this time. And be warned: You likely won’t see a change for the better right away. Depending on the plant, it could take a few weeks or longer till the plant is in a better state of health.

Step 6: Look at the lighting

Let there be light—or maybe not so much of it! Lighting is an important factor for the health of your houseplants, so you’ll need to make sure that your variety is getting the optimal amount. Once you know if your houseplant prefers full sun, partial sun, direct sunlight, or direct sunlight, then you can move it to a more suitable area of your home. “If your plant isn’t getting enough light, moving it to somewhere it will help,” says Christensen. Depending on its state, a seemingly dead plant might perk up sooner rather than later with just this simple tweak. Don’t have a lot of light in your home? Consider these low-light houseplants that thrive in near darkness.

Step 7: Determine if your plant needs more humidity.

If your plant came from the tropics, it might be dying to get back to that type of environment—literally. Although the amount of humidity depends on the plant, there are some indicators that a plant may need more moisture in the air. “If the humidity is too low,” says Morganthaler, “the plant can show signs of shrivelling, browning, and wilting.” If more humidity is needed, try misting your plants regularly or grouping them to help increase humidity.

Of course, too much humidity will be a problem for some plants. “If the humidity is too high, the plant can develop mould or mildew, fungal infections, and yellow leaves,” says Morganthaler. In general, she notes that plants with thicker, waxier leaves tolerate dry air better, which is the situation in most of our homes. Still, Christensen adds, “while houseplants have been acclimated for life indoors and don’t necessarily need very humid conditions, most won’t like sitting next to a heater or air vent, as this can be too dry for their liking.”

Step 8: Provide additional nutrients

Feeding your plant is especially important during the growing seasons of spring and summer. A malnourished plant, says Valentino, will exhibit weak stems or discoloured leaves, so to revive a dying plant, you’ll need compost or fertilizer. Two good options: Dr Earth’s liquid food, which contains only organic ingredients and no synthetic chemicals, and the brand’s all-purpose organic fertilizer for all types of plants. Simply repotting your dying plant can also help. “Soil can become depleted of nutrients over time, so repotting every few years is always a good idea,” says Christensen.

If, however, your plant is in bad shape, it’s a good idea to start slow. You don’t want to make a number of sudden changes all at once since the plant is likely to already be in a state of shock and more susceptible to problems. Over time, keep up the good habits. “Most plants do best with a little fertilizer, usually once or twice a month, during the growing season,” Christensen adds.

Step 9: Wait at least a month.

It can be easy to lose hope when it looks like your efforts aren’t paying off. But remember: It took a while to nearly kill your plant, and it’s going to take a while to nurse it back to health. The key is to be patient. Keep tending to your plant for a few weeks and then reevaluate. “Once you’ve taken steps to revive a dying plant, it can take up to a month before you start to see an improvement or new growth, so don’t give up on it too soon,” says Valentino. You may also need to do some troubleshooting before figuring out the exact problem and the subsequent solution, so the process may take longer than expected. By the way, this is what your houseplants would tell you if they could.

Step 10: Compost it.

If you’ve tried everything, including waiting a minimum of a month, and your plant hasn’t made any progress, it may be time to say goodbye. But instead of tossing your dead plant in the trash, place it in a compost bin. When you compost your plants, even if they’re dead, the remains can be turned into nutrient-rich soil that acts as a natural fertilizer that can benefit your other houseplants or garden. That means your dead plant can have new life—and contribute to the health of your future plants while also helping the environment. Ever tried your hand at compost? Here’s how to make compost at home. It’s easier than you think!

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