When I moved into my last home, one April day many years ago, I immediately noticed that the old apple tree looked half dead. On that 30-foot tree, the top third was completely bare. No foliation – no blooms – no leaves. Instead, there was what appeared to be dead sticks shooting out above the foliage for ten feet. I learned and experienced something very easy for helping urban trees to recover, and I want to share it with you.
Now I am no arborist but I adore nature and plants, and I enjoy research and study. Some people think the die-off of the top of a deciduous tree is acid-rain burn. What is actually happening is smog and pollution falling to the ground and leaching nutrients out of the soil. The top of the tree is the first area to display the tree’s stress. It’s basically like witnessing a tree starving to death.
Knowing this, I immediately got to work. I went to my local garden store and purchased the appropriate type of fertilizer for an apple tree. I came home and pounded those fertilizer stakes into the ground all around the drip-line of the tree (the outer edge of the branches), following the manufacturer’s directions. There was an area where the tree hung over my neighbor’s fence and I did not address that area of drip-line fertilizing, however I knew that the majority (three-quarters) of area that I could fertilize would help the tree. After pounding in the spikes, I set the water-sprinkler to a low rate and slowly, deeply soaked the ground all around the drip-line, especially where the fertilizer stakes were. I also carefully pruned out the inner dead wood and overlapping branches. Then I crossed my fingers! Ok, in all honesty (being who I am) I told the tree I loved it and hoped it would want to stay and get healthier (yes, I am a tree-hugger and would wear a t-shirt announcing it if I had one).
In one year I was delighted to notice the length of those bare branches atop the tree had shrunk by half. The tree definitely looked fuller and was producing new branches and abundant apples. I repeated the fertilizer-stakes applications in both spring and fall, as I had the first year, along with supplemental watering. In the third spring, after only two years of some care and attention, that old neglected apple tree regained full foliation! I have witnessed it and I know it can be done. Those branches on top of a tree that appear dead can revive and fully leaf-out with a little human assistance.
In our current home, we inherited some huge spruce trees in the front yard, each over 50 feet tall. While many people think ‘you can’t kill a spruce tree’ I know that’s not true. They may not show their stress as obviously as a deciduous tree with those top-bare branches, but evergreen trees can lose needles and start to over-produce pinecones when stressed. Although incredibly hardy, there are a couple of things that can really harm a spruce – or any tree – and a couple of easy steps that can help bring back shine and vigor to your old trees.
First of all, I certainly don’t go digging out roots. My gardens have been developed just beyond the drip-line. As well, I know that their long shallow roots travel much farther than the drip-line, so the small young perennials and shrubs that I have added are placed in carefully dug holes, working around the tree roots. A small amount of thin fibrous roots can be removed here and there, but we do not damage those big ones. Those roots that look like underground branches stay right where they are and I move the placement of the hole when I discover them. By choosing very hardy, drought-tolerant plants, I am doing what I can for these additions to live alongside thirsty tree roots.
Another thing I would never do to any tree, is build up the soil over their roots (more than 1 or, at most, 2 inches). That’s a sure-fire way to kill a tree. It may take a few years but trees will perish if too much soil is added over their roots. They essentially suffocate. While a partial garden built up over a small section under your tree’s canopy may not seriously harm it, especially if the tree is additionally cared for with nutrients and supplemental watering, failing to understand this concept and building up the soil all over the roots of a tree to add flowers and height to the garden will as surely kill a tree as if you took a chainsaw to it. Only suffocation takes much longer.
So those are a couple of things I wouldn’t do. A couple of things I would do to add to the health of a tree is to give it some food. As mentioned earlier, fertilizer spikes are incredibly easy to apply and are very beneficial for trees, especially long-neglected, nutrient-deficient urban trees. Just be sure to give it lots of water after fertilizing (or better yet! ~time it with regular rainfall in your area). And read the manufacturers directions. Trees only need one or two feedings a year.
Even mature, tough trees such as spruce can do with a bit of supplemental watering. Of course, if rain has been frequent every other week or so, no watering is needed. But if it has been more than a month, and there are no water-restrictions in your municipality, by all means offer your old trees a drink. One good solid drink every other month is all that is needed with established drought-tolerant trees such as spruce. Fruit-bearing trees benefit from additional watering if dry weather requires it.
Head out early in the morning before it gets too hot, on a windless day, and set the sprinkler to low. Place it under the tree at about the drip-line and move it a few feet around the circle every 20 minutes or so. You are giving the tree a really good soaking! This is not required frequently, but it definitely helps add to the health of your trees during dry times.
The trees in my yard offer shade and shelter, protecting us from heat in summer and winds in winter. If I can give them a few tools to add to their strength to help withstand the winter winds and urban pollution, then I know I am doing my part in this symbiotic partnership.
There you go. A bit of fertilizer and a bit of water. For the price of a dinner or a movie with a friend, you can add so much health to the trees in your yard.