There are a few adages about trees that summarize their overall approach to life. One that stands out with simplified succinctness is  “a hundred years living and a hundred years dying”. Many oak trees will experience 100 years of vigorous growth, followed by a very slow decline over decades.  

Let’s be honest, there’s no miracle answer to how to save a dying tree. The unfortunate truth is that all trees have a lifespan. Like with all living things, dying is unavoidable. Some trees, like redwoods, live unfathomably long lives – thousands of years. The silver maple in your backyard is not as long lived. You’ll be fortunate if it survives even 100 years. 

The first step when trying to figure out how to save a dying tree is take a closer look at the tree you’re worried about and try to diagnose the problem.

drying leaves on tree

Photo by Lachlan Gowen on Unsplash

Signs of Stress in a Dying Tree 

The overall condition of the canopy can be a tell-tale sign of the long and short-term health of your landscape trees. The canopy of a tree is the sum total of all the branches and leaves.

Crown dieback occurs when the upper tips of your tree’s canopy are failing to receive proper moisture. When this happens, leaves prematurely turn color or dry up and fall off.

Individual branch dieback is crown dieback on a smaller scale. This is when a more localized area in the canopy is showing signs of stress with premature color or falling leaves.

Observing the leaves can also help with diagnosing the causes of tree decline. 

Some things to look for:

  • Chlorotic leaves: yellowing leaves that aren’t as deep green as they should be during the season. A lack of a key mineral like iron can lead to chlorotic or yellow leaves with darker veins.
  • Smaller leaf size: the tree’s leaves aren’t growing to a mature size
  • Thinning canopy: when you look up into the canopy of the tree and it doesn’t seem as full as it should be. 
  • Early fall color: the tree’s leaves are prematurely turning red, orange or yellow in the spring or summer
  • Damaged leaves: Leaves that appear damaged from insect activity could be a sign your tree is stressed and not healthy enough to defend against an overabundance of feasting insects. Depending on the tree, there are some treatments available to fend off an infestation and slow or stop the decline of your beloved tree.
  • Defoliation: A premature or unseasonable loss of leaves from year to year not only damages the beautiful, shady canopy of your tree, but the long-term health of your tree friend. 

Once you’ve identified some of the potential issues, you need to take a look at how you’re caring for your trees to see if you can make some improvements that will positively impact the tree’s health.

what to do when your tree is dying

Photo by David Vig on Unsplash

Best Practices for Maintaining the Long Term Health of Your Trees

Just because one of your landscape trees is entering into its advanced years, doesn’t mean you can’t provide it with the best conditions available to promote optimal health as it ages.

The steps for how to save a dying tree follow the same guidelines as taking care of your tree throughout its entire life. You want to do your best to provide it with its ideal growing conditions.

Watering

If you’re fortunate to live in an area where you get consistent rain, your trees may not need supplemental watering from you. If your area receives inconsistent moisture, you’ll need to provide water to bridge the gaps between rainfalls.

If you just planted a tree, read more about how often to water new trees.

Mulching

Next to watering, mulching is arguably the best practice for keeping newly planted or even older established trees healthy long term. In this article about how to put mulch around a tree you’ll learn the many benefits of mulching, best practices for putting mulch around trees, the types of mulch to use and where to source them. Oh, and how to avoid mulching volcanoes!

what to do when your tree is dying

Photo by Jared Kinyua on Unsplash

Pruning 

With mature trees, maintaining a healthy structure involves pruning out branch defects such as co-dominant branches (two branched growing from the same origin point) that may inhibit a tree’s growth or ability to withstand a storm or tangled and crowded branches that impede growth and rub against one another, causing damage.Read more about what is tree pruning.

Cabling

Sometimes your tree’s structure needs help because the branch attachments are weak. In these cases, you need to provide supplemental support to protect the tree from branch failure. Read more about tree bracing and cabling.

Soil Health

You also need to consider the condition of the earth that the tree is growing in. If you love to park your car in the shade of your favorite tree it may be suffering from compaction. 

Tree roots need air space to breathe. Compacted soil can stunt growth and in older trees may start the spiral of decline.  Air spading can improve airspace in the soil and when organic matter is incorporated back into the soil it can improve fertility and tilth. 

To increase your chances of not having to save a dying tree you must take care of your tree throughout its entire life. This means having a relationship with your tree that recognizes its needs, which necessitates close observation. 

Noting the seasonal changes that occur and year to year differences in your trees’ appearance will help guide the process of restoring, maintaining and saving your trees.

Can an older tree be saved from its inevitable decline? Not ultimately, but, like anything that ages, a proactive approach will head off problems before they spiral downhill and help you keep the tree in your landscape longer.  

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