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What Killed This Tree

What Killed This Tree

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Published by Kirk's Lawn Care

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Published by: Kirk's Lawn Care on Mar 03, 2012
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College of Agricultural Sciences • Cooperative Extension
Here are some questions to ask yourselfwhen diagnosing plant problems in thelandscape.
1. What is the name of the plant?
It is important to know the normal appearance andgrowth habit of a plant before attempting to diagnoseproblems as what may be perceived as a “problem”may actually be normal for the plant. Accurate plantidentification is the first step in diagnosing plantproblems.
Larch is a deciduous conifer and appears“dead” in winter. Bristlecone pine appears to have pineneedle scale. White pines shed inner needles profusely inautumn. Sweetgum has corky ridges on its stems.Variegated cultivars often appear abnormal in color.Misdiagnosis of these “problems” can proveembarrassing.
2. What common pests affect the plant?
Most plants have a limited set of insect, mite, anddisease pests that affect them. When diagnosingproblems, it helps to know the signs and symptoms of these common pest problems. Penn State’s
WoodyOrnamental Insect, Mite, and Disease Management Guide
(http://woodypestguide.cas.psu.edu/) outlinescommon pests of trees and shrubs. Cornell University’stwo outstanding publications,
 Insects that Feed on Trees and Shrubs
 Diseases of Trees and Shrubs
, are referred to inthe Penn State guide by page number, making it quick and easy to view color pictures of common pests if allthree publications are available.
3. Does the plant have specific siterequirements or intolerances?
While many plants tolerate a wide range of growingconditions, others do not. You will need to know therequirements of each species in order to diagnose aproblem correctly.
Yews and Douglas fir are intolerant of wetsites. Rhododendron, pin oak, willow oak, most hollies,and many other plants require acidic soils. Some plantstolerate shade while others do not. Know the sitepreferences for the trees or shrubs in question. Manyplant identification texts can help you determine siteintolerances for specific plants.
4. How long has the plant been established onthis site?
Dead or dying plants that have been established lessthan two years may be affected by problems relating totheir establishment in the landscape, beginning with thequality of the plant before it reached the site. Improperdigging, handling, planting, and post-transplant care arecommon plant killers.
: Plants desiccated in transport; plants over- orunder-watered in storage or after planting; plants dugwith improper ball size; plants which are planted toodeep in the nursery and/or the landscape.
5. Has there been recent construction, paving,grade change, or other disturbance(s) on thesite?
Soil compaction and grade change reduces soil oxygenlevels in the root zone. Tree roots can’t function withoutadequate levels of oxygen or the trees will decline anddie. Furthermore, decline may not actually occur until
What Killed this Tree? Site-Related Problemsin the Landscape
several years after the construction activity, making itdifficult to diagnose the problem.
6. What’s happening where the plant stemmeets the soil?
This is where you’ll find girdling twine, rodent injury,girdling roots, mechanical injury, plastic burlap, graftincompatibility, improper planting depth signs, plasticpots still around the root ball, etc.
7. Is the site extremely wet for any extendedperiods during the year?
Some sites are inherently too wet for certain landscapeplants. Be aware of changing soil-water relations aroundplants due to construction, water diversion, broken rainspouting, etc.
8. Were herbicides applied recently?
Herbicides used in normal turf and landscapemanagement rarely kill landscape plants. The ability of an herbicide to cause landscape plant injury will varydepending on its mode of action, the plants involved,and many other factors. Most herbicides cause distinctplant injury symptoms while others will cause a range of symptoms that vary with the plant species involved.Don’t blame herbicides for plant injury merely becauseyou can’t establish a proper explanation for the site-related problem. Herbicides are unlikely to injureindividual plants in the landscape, so if symptoms areconfined to one plant but surrounding plants arehealthy, consider another diagnosis.
9. Were there recent, unusual weatherconditions?
Low temperature, late spring freezes, high winds, hail,drought, and excessive rainfall all affect plant growth.Weather conditions such as these are a convenientexplanation when no other explanation is obvious andare sometimes inaccurately used when the diagnosticianis stumped. On the other hand, don’t underestimate theimpact of extremes in weather, the effects of whichmay not be evident until a year or more after the stresshas occurred.
10. Does the landscape have adequate soilresources to support plant growth?
New construction sites often leave just a veneer of soilover cinder blocks, rubble, mounds of tree stumps,plaster board, rocks, asphalt, etc. Unfortunately, youmay never determine that this is the problem unlessyour postmortem includes the use of a backhoe toreveal what is going on underground.
11. Has there been any other unusual activitythat may have affected tree, shrub and turf health?
This list can be endless. Stay alert and observant for theunusual. Knowledge about the site history is oftenessential in diagnosing a current condition.
: a gas grill was used under the lilac; piles of de-icing salted snow remained in the shrub beds allwinter; the dog never strayed more than 10 feet fromthe porch all winter; fertilizer was left to deteriorate inbags under trees in the landscape; the caterer dumpedleftover ice cubes and/or hot coffee in the turf andbeds weekly, gas leaks, etc.
Diagnosing plant problems is not easy. . . .
Be ready to admit that sometimes you just don’t haveenough information to diagnose the problem. Trees,shrubs, and turf grasses, like other living things, oftensuccumb to an accumulation of stresses rather than asingle factor. This makes diagnosis difficult andsometimes impossible.Experience and judgment come into play. For instance,cedar apple rust and aphids are frequently found oncrabapples each year, however, plant killers are not. Thediagnostician must be able to discriminate among his/ her observations before drawing conclusions.On the other hand, sometimes we fail to look closelyenough to gather the information needed to diagnosethe problem. Plant problems are rarely diagnosedaccurately from the seat of the truck; it’s often a “handsand knees” operation that yields the most conclusiveresults.Prepared by Scott Guiser, Bucks County extensioneducator.
102 T
, PA 16802F
3, 2005

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