When a Tree Dies

Pine tree

A dead leaf is intentionally placed on the path leading from the waiting area to the tea house in the Japanese tea ceremony. The dead leaf’s purpose is to remind the participants that death is part of life.

Having managed a tree nursery for almost twenty years, I have had many opportunities to observe reaction to tree death. The loss of a tree can echo other losses in the gardener’s life and stir up strong emotions. The loss can also serve as a reminder of the gardener’s own mortality.

The cause of the tree’s death is certainly a primary factor in determining reactions. Some trees are ‘short-lived’. Think of a red bud (Cercis canadensis), 20 to 30 years is about the average life span and usually by that time it looks pretty ragged and decrepit and probably has outgrown the initial space.

Frequently, it seems people want to immediately replace the lost tree. However, living with the void for a year can be a good idea as often the entire landscape has matured.

If a replacement tree is still desired, many want to replace the lost tree with the exact same variety. Again, this might be a time to spend a little more effort and review more options. Newer cultivars may have been developed with even more ornamental value. A totally different type of tree may be a better option than the first tree.

When a tree dies prematurely the issue becomes more complicated. When this happens, figuring out the cause of death is essential. Most gardeners have lost trees along the way, and although a disappointing event, the gardener does not often get overly upset and instead focuses on learning why the tree died.

Some questions to explore in this post-mortem analysis include: Initially, was the tree a healthy tree? In the nursery setting often there is a choice among several candidates and knowing how to select the healthiest one is an important skill. If uncertain, consider asking the nursery manager to help choose and verbalize their observations during the selection process.

Secondly, making sure the location of the tree is the proper one for the variety chosen, not only in terms of aesthetics but also for cultural reasons. Considerations of sun and shade, drainage, and wind exposure are all important in deciding if the tree is well suited for the particular site.

The next factor is the planting. What makes trees challenging is that a good portion of what is necessary for growth and health occurs underground where you can’t easily determine what is going on. The mantra “plant it in a hole twice the size of the root ball” is known by most, but what does this really mean? In our clay soils it is important not to dig a hole any deeper than the actual root ball itself as water will find the area of least compaction and wick up and rot the roots.

Finally, consider the initial aftercare—meaning care during the first summer. Management of water needs is the main goal right after planting as the root system of the tree is not functioning yet as it will in the future. The roots have not yet had time to develop the broad network to absorb moisture from the soil.

Gardening is an intimate activity. Like all intimacies, an essential ingredient is risk. To the extent that you can deeply enjoy your thriving garden, you are equally compelled to be willing to assume the risk of plant death, recognizing that you will learn something if it dies and have found a way to accept this reality.

John Monroe is the owner of Architectural Trees in Bahama a specialty nursery with a focus on conifers, Japanese maples and other interesting woody plants.