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How to save a sick or dying tree
Last updated: 13 August 2020
If you notice the tell-tale signs early a tree that is sick and dying can be saved and brought back to life.
There are 4 steps you need to take in order to save a sick and dying tree.
1. Identify the issue is any and amend
2. Prune 30% of the tree’s foliage
3. Implement a watering program
Identify the issue
This is pretty broad, but let’s talk about some of the main reasons a tree will make a turn for the worst.
a. Change of environment – A tree can adapt to the most reasonable conditions and grow accordingly. If their environment were to suddenly change it can cause issues.
i. Compacted soil – Have you recently changed the environment around the base of the tree? Paved the area, started driving the card under the tree which has compacted the soil? This can reduce the water and air uptake of the tree’s roots.
ii. Contamination – This can be in the form of oil spills or other chemicals around the base of the tree, or a less obvious one is pouring Draino or other chemicals down a drain and not knowing the tree roots are tapped into that drain.
b. Pest infestation – This is a sign your tree has been sick for a while. A tree’s natural defence against burrowing bugs is sap. When a tree is healthy it produces good amounts of sap that drown any potential attackers. When a tree is sick, these guys can get in there and make things even worse.
There are many different types of pests such as moths, caterpillars to borers. Here is a list of the most common pests in trees.
c. Disease – This can strike on many fronts, but mostly it will be a fungus or bacteria. There are many different types of’ diseases that affect trees.
Moderate prune of 30% foliage
This is a BIG one. By removing 30% of the tree’s foliage, it’s like giving antibiotics to the tree. Or taking 30% load off a truck that is struggling to drive up a hill. It gives the tree a massive boost as it can now focus its resources on the remaining branches.
One of the major reasons a tree will get sick is through a lack of water because of a drought. A moderate prune will allow it to survive on a lot less water.
In some cases, your tree might be too far gone to save and removal is required. To get an idea of the price, please check out our tree removal cost guide here.
Implement a watering program
Depending on the size of the tree, you may need to leave the hose running at the base of the tree very slowly overnight every 2 weeks or so. This will soak the ground and allow the tree to take up good amounts of water.
Smaller trees will not need so much and will most likely bounce back a lot quicker.
I always prefer the natural approach when fertilizing rather than chemicals. Using horse manure in your garden around the dripline of the tree, or thinly raked through your lawn (if that is in the drip zone) and watered in will give the tree a real boost.
Author: Ben McInerney – Ben is a qualified arborist with 15 plus years of industry experience in Arboriculture. He ran a successful tree service before turning to writing and publishing. Ben is dedicated to providing users with the most accurate up-to-date information on everything trees.
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How can you tell if a tree is dying?
There are 3 ways you can tell a tree is starting to struggle.
The crown of the tree seems to be most sensitive to changes in the health of a tree. As it is the place where most new growth happens and all “excess” energy goes to grow larger, it is the first place the tree will decrease its rations of water and nutrients.
Slow bounce back after autumn
Most trees of the same species will bloom back to life after winter at about the same time, give or take a week or two.
If you notice your tree is particularly slow in bouncing back then you might have an issue.
Thin or sparse growth
Other than crown die-back, a tree might look sparse as compared to other trees if the same age and size.
It’s pretty easy to spot although because the chance is usually gradual, it can take a while for you to catch on.
Dead wood is small branches (normally 3rd and 4th order) that have died on your tree. This example below is of a tree with excess deadwood.
Can a half dead tree be saved?
You can save a half-dead tree and bring what is left back to life, but once a part of a tree has fully died and dried out, there is no way to bring back that part of the tree. The best you can do is remove the dead parts and concentrate on bringing back the rest of the tree.
Take the above example. The top has fully died off. No amount of water and fertilizer will bring it back. You will need to remove that part and work on recovering the rest of the tree.
It will look a little one-sided for a while until the tree naturally grows into the void left when you remove the dead branches.
Is my tree dead or dormant?
The snap test is the best way to sort this out. Go to the very tip of a branch that you suspect might be dead and snap it off.
Dead branches – They will be easy to snap and not flexible at all. You will get a crisp snapping sound and you will see it is brown and dry all the way through.
Live but dormant branches – These will flex a lot more before snapping. You will need to tear away from the bark that wants to hold on. If you look in the centre you will see white and or green and it will be moist.
Can I cut down a dead tree on my property?
It is legal to remove dead trees on your property. I have read in very very few tree ordinances that you need a permit by the city first. 99% of the time you will be fine. You can double-check 2 ways.
Fast and easy – Go to this like and search for your state then the city. There will be a link to your Local Tree Removal Ordinance which will state whether you need a permit or not to remove a dead tree.
Also effective – Phone your local tree service and ask them. They will be up to date on local laws and will soon tell you where you stand.
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