No Green Left Behind

No Green Left Behind

Now that Daylight Savings Time has begun, it's time to start thinking spring. As temperatures begin to gradually climb higher during the next few weeks, blooming flowers, chirping birds and budding trees paint the perfect scene of the season.

But early spring often presents us with drab colors and climates as winter leaves us behind. So, before spring transforms the environment into a palette of bright greens, yellows, pinks and blues, the season's rain showers must wash Old Man Winter's salt-stricken sidewalks and mud-trotted lawns away.

There is no denying I've got spring fever, especially after experiencing sudden warm temperatures during a recent visit to the Midwest. As I soaked in the sunshine, however, expecting to see eager green crocus emerging from the soil along the path, the empty brown cavities I noticed within several nearby evergreen trees dampened my excitement for the season.

Specifically in the Midwest, some conifers are suffering from browning and fading needles, and extended drought might be the culprit. Because conifers transpire all year, they don't experience dormancy during winter, as deciduous trees do. Last summer's lack of rain may have affected the root systems of conifers that now suffer from browning needles - a sign their root systems could not support them through winter. And because trees react differently to several environmental factors, drought may affect some trees sooner than others.

Dying, fading columnar arborvitae and red cedar
Columnar arborvitae and red cedar trees fading from drought | Photo: Rex Bastian

Technical Advisor Rex Bastian says drought symptoms typically appear in Northern white cedar, spruce and pine, but all conifers may suffer from browning or fading needles. "Conifers' needles will begin to turn brown once you add moisture stress in the form of wind desiccation or higher temperatures," he explains. "As moisture stress increases, you'll notice an increase in water loss from the needles versus a decrease in how much water the tree can replace via its root or vascular system."

Summer drought periods will also cause more needles to drop in fall - more than what's typical during a normal fall needle cast season. "The tree will shut down those weak branches for good," Bastian says. "It won't spend time or efforts to supply weak branches with nutrients because needles typically drop from lower branches, which are generally shaded in natural systems anyway; most conifers need full sun to thrive." Conifers will usually allocate resources to the top of tree, where conditions can be better, Bastian adds.

Austrian pine
Austrian pine suffering from needle drop and dothistroma blight | Photo: Rex Bastian

Although drought damage cannot be reversed quickly, you can help renew the appearance of conifer trees that have been slightly to moderately affected. "On conifers, shoots of new growth develop at the tip of each branch, so you may prune or remove the thin or weakened branches near the bottom to improve appearance," Bastian says. "Good shoot growth at the top of the tree indicates good vitality."

With the exception of cytospora canker, a disease that characteristically affects the lower branches of spruce trees, partial browning of needles may not be a sign that the entire tree is at risk. "Conifers' lower or weak branches are often shaded, so they'll lose their needles anyway - this is a normal process," Bastian explains. "You can't control a natural occurrence."

Dying Scots Pine
A Scots Pine suffering from drought and/or bark beetle damage | Photo: Rex Bastian

Although drought often causes conifers to brown and suffer from dead or weakened branches, Bastian explains why you can't always blame a lack of rain for the symptoms you see on your trees. "Every year, we expect a certain percentage of stress and varying states of health among all trees," he says. "When you increase the number of environmental stressors, the likelihood you'll see symptoms also increases." For example, Bastian says overwatering causes the same symptoms as extended drought.

Whether drought has affected your conifers, contact your local arborist for a professional consultation of your trees, should you notice any symptoms. The arborist will help you assess the appearance of your trees and make recommendations for proper soil care, mulching and moisture conservation to nurse your trees back to good health.

Looking ahead to the summer months, an arborist may also help determine whether preventive care options exist to protect your trees from further drought damage. "Depending on the situation of your trees, you might be able to take some action to reduce future losses," Bastian says. "Use your arborist's consultation as an opportunity to find the best solution from the available options."

Despite the hint of spring distracting you, remember to check in on your conifers this season so they can prosper into the true evergreens they were meant to be.

Add a comment:
Featured or Related Blog Posts
  • Root in Moisture

    Planting trees is just half the battle.

    The diseases, pests and power equipment that emerge outdoors in spring, accompanying frequent sunlight, longer days and warmer temperatures, can wreak havoc on your trees if you don't put forth the effort to protect them.

    To keep your trees healthy throughout the growing season and beyond, you must practice routine maintenance and proper tree care. One way to help trees retain moisture, reduce weeds and keep power equipment at a safe distance is through mulch. In the coming weeks, you'll see piles of fresh mulch lined along neighborhood driveways. Soon, the coarse, fragrant matter will settle among flower and tree beds, enhancing the quality of landscapes' appearances.

    Read More
  • Just a Trim, Please

    Put a pair of scissors in your hands, and whether you're cutting coupons or bangs, there's always the potential to oversnip. It's almost too easy to make a mistake as you clip, clip, clip away - removing a little more on this side and a bit more on that side.

    Just like with a bad haircut, there is nothing more noticeable than a poorly pruned plant - pieces sticking out in all directions, a butchered shrub, a tree that looks like the top has been sliced off. The good news is that just as the perfect haircut can frame the face and improve a person's appearance, the same can be said for a professional tree pruning job.

    Pruning is not only a science, but an art form. The science aspect of pruning involves understanding tree biology, recognizing plant flaws and skillfully eliminating or minimizing defects. The artistic aspect of pruning consists of removing dead wood while aesthetically shaping the tree.

    Read More
  • Heat Wave

    Heat wave.

    The term usually makes many people think of the tropics or the desert.

    But extreme heat has hit many areas hard so far this summer. Record highs have been broken in some cities, while others have seen their hottest temperatures since the 1980s.

    Read More
  • Forecast: Hot & Humid

    The air-conditioning is set on high. The fan is blowing in my face. And it feels so good, particularly since my dog and I were just panting within seconds of stepping out to a heavy wall of heat and humidity. His face tilts up to mine, happy for the nice, cool breeze. We face the facts together as I sip from a tall, cool glass of water and he laps up the same out of his bowl: Despite our yearning to enjoy the outdoors, it's hot. And it's hot in nearly every region of the country.

    There's simply no denying it: This summer's a scorcher. While it's difficult to find the motivation to open the door to the heat lingering in the air outside - let alone step out onto a dry, parched lawn - I brave the elements because I notice my trees need some TLC, too.

    It's difficult to imagine another day of 90-plus degree temperatures. So I can hardly imagine how my trees must feel as their roots cling to nothing but the dry soil, day after day.

    Read More
  • Try a Little Tenderness

    When someone moves into a new home, they tend to have a smoother, more successful transition when they plan ahead and carefully move through each step. This includes thoughtfully packing boxes beforehand in an organized fashion, clearly labeling the boxes so movers put them in their proper rooms and then unpacking them so everything that is removed is unwrapped and put into its place to avoid rework.

    If this works for your most delicate China place settings and Lenox crystal, you can see why it would make all the difference when moving something as large, yet just as delicate, as a tree.

    When it's a big, valuable tree that provides numerous benefits to your landscape and your family, a "move" is much more than just picking it up and placing it in its new location. To preserve the numerous benefits trees provide to a community and its residents, which The National Tree Benefits Calculator can help determine, one must plan carefully - before, during and after the big move - to ensure survival.

    Read More

Request a consultation

What do you need services for?
Sorry, we can’t seem to find the zip code you specified. Our residential tree care offices may not service your area. If you believe this is an error, please try again. Need help? Email us at
  • Email newsletter
  • Woodchips
*Please fill out all required fields.