What’s Wrong With My Tree?

July 7, 2019 lawanda Uncategorized

        I enjoy receiving gardening questions from readers which is why I list my email address at the end of my column.  I invariably learn something new while making sure to provide thorough, science-based answers to the questions posed.  Sometimes I have to admit that I just don’t know the answer for sure and I tell the questioner what I would do if it was my issue. 

        Recently, a reader sent a photo of a seven-year-old catalpa tree.  It had been doing fine until this spring when not even half of the branches produced leaves.  I could see from the photo that the tree had been well cared for and it was located in a beautifully landscaped yard.

        It was too early in the year to suspect insect damage or disease, so I studied the photo carefully to look for clues in the tree’s physical environment that may have caused its decline. 

        The reader suggested that last winter’s challenging weather may have been the problem.  That’s always a possibility, but even though last winter did have an extended extreme cold period, so have other winters in the last seven years.  Last summer and fall had sufficient rainfall, and the tree shouldn’t have been stressed when going into winter, so last winter’s weather probably wasn’t to blame.

        Here are some of the possibilities I proposed that may have led to the tree’s demise. 

        My first thought was that the tree may have been improperly planted.  When a tree is removed from a nursery pot, it is often root-bound with roots circling around inside the pot.  It can’t just be plunked into a pot-sized hole in the ground as is.   A wide hole should be dug with a slight mound in the center so the roots can be gently teased apart and spread out and downward from the trunk.

        I couldn’t tell from the photo the reader sent, but there may have been landscape fabric surrounding the tree.  Synthetic landscape fabric and weed barriers can choke a tree when the trunk expands in size or can prevent water and nutrients from reaching the tree roots.

        The photo showed black plastic edging surrounding the mulch at the base of the tree as well as several healthy-looking shrubs growing in the mulch.  If the edging and shrubs were added after the tree was in place for a few years, tree roots may have been damaged during installation.  Without sufficient roots, the tree might not have been able to take up adequate water and nutrients.  Or, the shrubs may have been stealing what water and nutrients were available. 

        In the end, I had to admit that without complete information as to how the tree was planted, what was under the mulch, and when the edging and shrubs were installed, I didn’t know what killed the catalpa.  I hope that the possibilities I posed will help the homeowner plant and grow the catalpa’s replacement successfully.

Trees and Shrubs


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