Winter drought can sometimes cause spruce trees to brown

I have four blue spruce that are about 25 years old, and one seems to be stressed. I water them several times a year and especially in late fall.

One of my trees has browning needles that we noticed late last year. Now the tree has more leaves turning brown.

My four trees grow in a straight line along our driveway. Could last year’s excessive heat cause the damage to this tree as the browning is occurring on the south side of the tree?

Can you recommend something to stop this tree from dying?

— Gloria

What you’re seeing is most likely a combination of winter drought damage, cold and sunburn. Actually, we’re seeing quite a bit of this come into the nursery lately.

Winter drought is the most common part of this. What happened is that a lot of spruce trees were hurt a bit in November, before that snow and cold hit us the middle of December. November was quite a bit warmer and drier than average and that combination, along with the spruce’s intolerance of drought, resulted in purpling and browning of needles. The way the weather was, I’d say spruce trees would have benefitted from two or even three deep soakings from the first of November into mid-December.

Once we got that heavy snowfall in mid-December and the cold inversion that followed, the problems that started in November compounded with the unusual cold, slowing water movement within the plant plus needle desiccation brought on by sunlight reflected off the snow cover.

In most cases people have brought to us, I’m finding that the stems and buds on those brown branches are still viable. The tree should push out new growth later this spring and though the tree will probably look a little ragged this year, in time it will cover it up with new growth and continue growing.

Now, having said all this, it is possible that something else is causing the problems you’re seeing.

The hot dry winter and spring we had last year have probably contributed to the situation and could potentially be the main problem, but it could also be excessive salts in the soil (from deicing products used on sidewalks and driveways over the winter) or borers of some kind.

What I’d do is monitor the soil for moisture and, if it seems to be drying out, water it. We’re all going to be getting ditch water in the next week or two or three and at that point, you could use your sprinklers to get the job done.

Treat the trees as if nothing is wrong. People sometimes overreact and water too much with the hope of making up for past problems. What’s done is done and overwatering is only going to add another problem to the situation.

Be sure to give your trees good, deep soakings, then allow the soil to dry slightly before soaking again.

When do I prune my roses this year?

— Paula

I think I’d go ahead and do it. I usually prune my roses back around the first of April. But with as warm as it has been, I did a bit of pruning on them about two weeks ago.

I’m perhaps a bit earlier than some recommendations, but I figure that this late, the threat of a really hard frost is minimal and since the roses are pushing new growth so strongly anyway, I’m not substantially changing how quickly they’ll grow.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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