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Landscaping 101: 7 Signs Your Tree May Be in Trouble

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Landscaping 101: 7 Signs Your Tree May Be in Trouble

July 7, 2022

Trees are an integral part of any garden or landscape. And just like any other plant, they need care and attention. However due to their size and slow growth compared to herbaceous garden annuals and perennials, trees often get neglected, much to their detriment.

Most homeowners don’t call an arborist or tree service unless they have an emergency, but that’s a mistake. Having trees checked every couple of years by a licensed arborist can head off expensive work and prolong the life of the tree—much like annual physicals for ourselves.

That said, there are some signs to look for that can give you a clue as to whether your tree may need help.

Photography by Joy Yagid.

Thinning or Discolored Leaves

Off-season yellowing leaves may mean a stressed tree.
Above: Off-season yellowing leaves may mean a stressed tree.

Seasons aside, if your tree should currently have leaves and doesn’t, that’s a problem. Look at the canopy, is it full and lush or are there holes where bare branches poke out? Is it shedding leaves in June? The leaves should be the proper color for the season. If they are yellow in July when they should be green, your tree is stressed. These are all issues that need to be checked. Also compare year-to-year canopy coverage. A simple solution is to take a photo on your phone midsummer every year. Various photo apps will even remind you by showing you what photos you took on that day in years past!

Dead Branches

Dead branches should be removed if they&#8\2\17;re in danger of falling on someone.
Above: Dead branches should be removed if they’re in danger of falling on someone.

Look for the obvious first. Is your tree dropping branches? Small ones are a sign something isn’t right. Large ones falling is a very dangerous situation since it can hurt someone or damage property. While some trees have brittle wood, such as Bradford pears and silver maples (both of which are prone to losing branches), falling branches could be a sign of something systematically wrong.

Broken Bark

Broken bark exposes the tree to insect, fungal, and bacterial damage.
Above: Broken bark exposes the tree to insect, fungal, and bacterial damage.

The bark is the skin of the tree. Its job is to protect the thin cambium cell layer. Damage to it would allow fungus, bacteria, and insects in. Are there cracks in the bark? Are large chunks of bark coming off the tree? (There are a few exceptions where bark shedding is normal: London Planes, Sycamores, Birches and some dogwoods, to name a few). Damage can come from string trimmers getting too close and deer using the trunks of young trees to rub velvet off their antlers to car accidents and kids climbing the tree.

A tree damaged by Emerald Ash Borers.
Above: A tree damaged by Emerald Ash Borers.

Additionally, birds (woodpeckers and sapsuckers), insects (borers such as the Emerald Ash Borer and the Asian Longhorned beetle), and fungus can all damage the bark. If you see a mushroom growing out of a living tree, get it checked out.

Mulch Volcanoes

Above: The tree flare should never be covered up by mulch.

Another very common problem: mulch volcanoes. Mulch volcanoes are when well-intentioned homeowners and landscapers pile mulch up around the trunk to make it look pretty and neat. If the root flare—the point where the tree trunk meets the ground and flares outward—is covered with mulch, it can damage the bark by holding moisture against the truck, causing the bark to rot. However, the real damage is that the feeder roots grow through the mulch and stay there. When they are above ground, they will dry out faster, and can freeze and bake via wide temperature swings over the course of the year. Mulch should be at least 4” to 6” away from the trunk and form a donut around the tree.

Creepers

Ivy taking over a tree.
Above: Ivy taking over a tree.

Is there ivy growing up the tree? This can be very dangerous. It can cause the tree to become off balance by the extra weight of the vines and the vines can choke out the light to the leaves.

Constricted Roots

Compacted soil can cause root girdling.
Above: Compacted soil can cause root girdling.

While you can’t see the roots, you can still figure out if there’s something wrong by indirect methods. For instance, if your soil is compacted, you have have a root issue, as the feeder roots will have a harder time bringing moisture and nutrients up to the tree. If you have work being done in your yard, remember that feeder roots go out from the trunk to the drip line of the canopy. Do not store heavy materials or use heavy machinery within that area. Doing so can kill the tree (although it may take a few years). Soil compaction can also result in root girdling. Girdling is where the roots are so constricted that they wind themselves around the tree, effectively choking the tree of nutrients. This needs an arborist to correct.

Roots can also be damaged by root cutting. Municipalities require sidewalks to be even and level. Tree roots can lift the sidewalk slabs causing a trip hazard. The ill-advised solution is to have the roots cut to level the slabs. No other intentional damage is more harmful. Not only are the feeder roots severed on that side, it also can destabilize the tree causing it to fall. An easy fix is to scoop the sidewalk around the roots and flare.

Abnormal Secretions

An oozing bacterial canker.
Above: An oozing bacterial canker.

Lastly, the unexpected that just pops up one day could be symptoms of damage. Dark stains running down the trunk can be bacterial wetwood. Random piles of sawdust at the base could be carpenter ants or termites. When in doubt, have it checked out.

And here are a few things you don’t need to worry about. Lichens and mosses. Lichens are the blue-gray-green-ish blotches that use the tree only for support. They get their food from the rain and air. They only appear in areas where the air is clean. Mosses, so long as they aren’t too heavy, are not a cause for concern either.

Trees are living beings that need routine care, like your garden, your pets, and yourself. Have your trees checked out by a licensed arborist on a regular basis. If you do have non urgent tree work done, try to schedule for the late fall or winter when baby birds and baby animals are least likely to be nesting. Ask the tree service to check for hollows and to confirm they are not inhabited. Another bonus to having the work done in the fall/winter is your garden is going to sleep. Even the most careful tree service might drop a limb into your garden beds. Dormant plants are hard to damage.

Playing attention to your trees can help find small problems early while they can still be fixed and can let your tree live a long and healthy life which you can enjoy.

For more on trees, see:

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