Dying Trees

The Beginning

I had quite an experience dealing with caring for new planted trees over the last three years and I wanted to share this with anyone who may be interested. Hopefully, those reading can learn something from my situation.

It started when we first moved into our new home and wanted some privacy around the home. We settled with the Dark Niagra American Arborvitae trees due to its durability, ease of care and was wide and tall enough to create the look we desired.

The Niagra Arborvitae spreads 5-8 feet wide and grows up to 20-25 feet tall. The Dark American Arborvitae are considered good hedge plants to create tall, and dense privacy screens. The Arborvitaes should grow 2-3 inches per year.

It was economically feasible since we needed about 25. We ordered the 9 to 10 footers and they ran about $225 each.

It was one of the warmer weeks in February and the temperature was in the low-to-mid 30 degrees.  We were convinced by our landscaper that the ground was thawed enough to do some digging.

First Tree Planting – January (Year 1)

With Spring still a few months away, our yard was bare and we were anxious so we put trust in our landscaper. He told us that he’s planted trees in this weather condition before with no issues. After 8 hours or so, the trees were in the ground accompanied with surrounding mulch and they looked great.

We were left with the advice of staying consistent with the watering schedule.

Trees should be watered weekly during the first year to help develop a deep root system. Please water each tree with a garden hose and soak them for 3 minutes each twice weekly.

Trees began to turn yellow/brown – May to June (Year 1)

When the start of summer came around, we noticed some yellowing in the leaves and then eventually browning. We reached out to our landscaper for advice and he suggested that we increase our watering after stopping by to take a look at the situation.

We were watering the trees daily, twice a day for a month and leaving 2-3 minutes or regular water flow for each tree. Once a month past, we reduced it to 3 times a week and then another month, we would be at once a week.

With the new advice, I extended the duration to 3-4 minutes and back to 3 times a week. Within the new 3-4 weeks, the trees didn’t get any better and started to turn brown and thin out.

At that point I knew I had to make some adjustment so I scaled back to once a week thinking that we may be over watering and wanted to see how the trees responded over the next few weeks. On days when it did rain, we did not water the the trees.

However, the conditions of the trees were worsening and we had to seek other opinions.

Explanation from other Landscapers who evaluated the trees condition believes it could have been any of the following:

  • Tree burns from exposing the tree to excessive wind during transport. When trees are being transported, they should be covered with a tarp or something that will prevent them from being hit by heavy wind.
  • Browning is normal for this type of tree in the fall months. We quickly eliminated this theory because the trees were thinning, more leaves were turning brown and not being revived.
  • The trees were planted wrong, leaving air pockets in the ground and the tree roots could be rotting.

All we know was that the Arborvitae should be very hardy and easy to care for and what we were experience was not normal. All the other landscapers recommended that the trees would not last and should be replaced in the fall.

Attempt to Save the Trees – June to October (Year 1)

Aside from adjusting the watering schedule, here were some of the things we’ve done in attempt to revive the dying trees over the next 5 months.

Opening the burlap at the root of the trees and mulch

I noticed that the burlap around some of the trees were still wrapped with little space around the bottom of the trees. We expanded them and also removed any mulch surrounding the trunk by 12 inches.  Then continued with the watering as scheduled.

Just in case anyone is wondering what a burlap is, it’s the fabric used to wrap the bottom of the tree which contains the roots and soil that was used in the field from seeding. This makes it easy to transport and move the tree around. The balled burlap also allow for containing moisture.

Drip Hose and Water bags – slowing down the water flow

We tried to revive the trees by installing a drip irrigation system. Initially, we are suspecting that too much water was coming out of the hose and not all of the water is able to reach the bottom of the root since the ground was very packed, and could be just spilling out.

After a few weeks of consistent watering using the drip hose, the trees have not improved so we decided to try the water bags since the hose broke. We have seen a few trees around the neighborhood with the water bags and decide to try them out for a few more weeks and as you would imagine, the trees continue to deteriorate.

Water Bags vs Irrigation Soaker Hose

I have found both to be effective methods of watering trees. Though I would favor the water bags more since there are some that can hold up to 15 gallons and once filled up, you can leave unsupervised. However, it would require some creativity if the tree is on a downward hill, you’ll need some rocks to keep it from rolling down.

The one upside for using the soaker hose is that it’s flexible and you can manipulate it’s placement much more easier than the water bags. You just need to make sure you get one that is long enough for your needs. Also, if the hose is not leveled, the end of the hose may not get enough or any water to treat the trees. This is something to be cautious about.

Overall, water bags are a bit more expensive but I find the water bags more durable but less aesthetically pleasing. Based on this information, hopefully it can help you decide which to go with.


We added some fertilizers to the root of each tree, attempting to eliminate that the ground was not in very good condition. This appeared to prolonged the inevitable for the trees. About 4-5 weeks after, the trees continue to on it’s way down. There were a few trees which have appeared to have reached the end of its life with ALL the branches wilted and brown.

Replacing the Trees – Early November (Year 1)

Before purchasing the trees, we were given a one year warranty and after months of chasing the original landscaper, he finally sent his crew out to replace the trees. This was a bit tricky since the weather had been wet but oddly warm that time of the year.

The landscaper explained to me is that the Nursery does not warrant the trees unless they were picked up September or October. When the trees were removed, the removal team mentioned that the trees were over watered.

New Trees Planted

This time around, the trees were noticeably planted higher and all of the burlap around the tree trunk was removed. This ensured any watering would reach the roots.

Once the new set of Arborvitae trees were installed in November, we only watered the first two weeks before the grounds were frozen and waited until late March to pick back up with watering. I was cautious and made sure the ground wasn’t frozen and the ball root was getting enough water.

After a month, I started to scale back from daily watering (1x a day) to three times a week (1x each time) and then after another month, down to once a week until the end of Summer. The new trees responded well after this and was able to survive the first year with no additional watering maintenance after 6-7 months.

Lessons Learned for the New Trees (Year 2 and 3)

In the second year going into the third, we did not have to water the Arborvitae trees as frequent, only when it was really dry for a few weeks and just let mother nature do her job. The trees have been growing fast and steady at 3 inches over the last two years. We will likely have to prune the trees to let it grow more wide since it’s already gotten good height.

Working with our new landscaper, we added an additional 8 Siberian Spruce Trees in late-July which seems to be doing very well and it’s been 2 years since installation. We spoken to the new landscaper who we hired to install the Siberian trees and informed them of our experience. The difference I would say is when they installed the trees and the amount of patience they took to properly put them into the ground.

Siberian Spruce Trees

Final Thoughts

I personally believe that the reason why the trees did not do well the first time could be a combination of one or more of these reasons:

  • The trees were planted during the cold season and while the weather was warm, the ground might still have been frozen. It was around in the January to February time frame. This could had attribute to the ground being packed and the folks installing the trees were not careful and possibly rushing to get the job done. This would also cause for air pockets around the roots which can cause root rot to occur.
  • Watering when the ground was frozen, even though the Landscaper insist we keep this up during the winter months, I truly think this attributed to the demise of the trees. The trees will be in hibernation mode until the grounds warm up again.  It’s best to water them right before the winter season hits so it has enough moisture in the roots to last in the winter.
  • Soil was not in great condition due to many rocks which could have made it more challenging to dig a nice hole for the tree to sit in and also result in air pockets.
  • Over-watering or under-watering is a possibility. The trees could have been over-watered since they may not be installed correctly, and as a result of water sitting in the root ball and kept contained by the burlap bag.
  • The burlap around the tree was not completely loosen, and the water could not get all the way down to the roots.
  • The mulch was took close to the trunk and the trees were not getting enough water since it’s absorbed by the mulch.

Either way, with more knowledge, we were able to  have success with the new set of trees. The Arborvitaes and Spruce trees are well and thriving two years later.

It is very important to do your homework, even though your landscaper might give you advice, you have to be sure and know what you’re getting yourself into. You might end up with a tree that requires a lot of maintenance or may too big for your home, or even mistaken the browning of the leaves for something else. Arborvitaes are known to brown a bit during the winter and comes back to full green in the warmer weather.

Final word of advice

You should find a reputable landscaper, shop around and if possible work with a landscaper that will offer warranty for your trees! This is not always available, the second landscaper who installed our Spruce trees did not offer any warranty and out of the 8 trees, only 7 survived and we had to chalk it up. They however offered to remove the tree for free.

Any comments, thoughts, questions or suggestions are welcome below! Hopefully this was insightful and happy tree planting!

Information that might be useful to you

Prune the tree

This is useful if there are any broken, dead, or diseased limbs on the tree. It’s best to hold off pruning any tree in the first growing season. One other benefit of pruning the tree is that it would promote the tree from growing wide that season you prune instead of growing taller. This is good if you are looking to create more coverage.

Watering the New Tree

One of the most important tasks to keep a tree thriving is to make sure it has enough water that would penetrate the roots. For the first year, it’s best to keep a steady schedule so the roots can establish itself in the surrounding soil. The watering schedule should take into consideration the existing weather conditions. Last thing you want is to water on the day following a heavy rain storm resulting in over-watering.

  • Using your garden hose for about 30 seconds at regular steady flow should be sufficient.
  • If you dig about 2 inches below the dirt, your fingers should be moist. If not, it may be time for some watering.

Consider Adding Mulch

Mulch can help keep moisture in and weeds out.  Ideally 1-3 inches of mulch around the trunk should be sufficient. However, keep the mulch at least 12 inches away from the trunk to avoid any trunk rotting.

Air pockets

It’s likely that you will not be able to expose the root of the tree after the landscaper installs the tree. But if you need to address any air pocket situations, you can remove the top level dirt soil and back fill where the hole is. The result of air pockets are rotted roots and that would be bad news for the tree.

Best time to plant new trees

It is best to plant them before the 4-6 weeks before the ground is frozen. Late Summer/Early Fall is ideal.

Things you might be interested in:

1) Fertilizers

Bayer Advanced 701700 12 Month Tree and Shrub Protect and Feed Granules, 4-Pound

Miracle-Gro Tree & Shrub Fertilizer Spikes – 12 PK

2) Drip Hose

Teknor Apex Apex, 1030-100, Soil Soaker Hose, 100-Feet – 1115920

Swan Products MGSPA38050CC Miracle-GRO Soaker System Customizable Hose with Push on Fittings, 50′ x 3/8″, Black

3) Water bags

Treegator Jr. Pro Slow Release Watering Bag for Trees and Shrubs

Treegator Original Slow Release Watering Bag for Trees

4) Mulch

MIGHTY109 Bold Black Wood Chip Mulch (42 Quarts!)


Scotts 88402440 2 Cu Ft Sierra Red Nature Scapes Color Enhanced Mulch

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How to Save a Dying Tree

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