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Colorado is brutal on trees.

Why did my tree die?

By Chris Leinster - June 17, 2020

First, the good news. Happy Trees is having a break out year and our crews are booked solid for weeks to come! That’s great news for a tree planting company, but many of the trees we’re planting are replacements for trees that didn’t make it through the winter. That’s bad news for homeowners who may have moved into a new home and invested in shade, privacy, or ornamental value.

So what happened? Why did so many trees die? Trees die for myriad reasons, but most deaths fall into a few categories. I remind clients all the time if you look around the next time you drive east of the airport, you’ll get a good sense of the types of trees that like to live here. That is to say, virtually none. Colorado is brutal on trees and plants of all types. Life is tough up on the high Chaparral, where only grasses, cacti, and a few wildflowers naturally squeeze out a subsistence.

From wild temperature swings to high altitude/ high intensity sunshine, brutal winters and spring hail storms, dry summer air and low precipitation, Colorado punishes any and all plants we attempt to grow here. Still, with a little water, fertilizer, and potentially a little pest control, many of the trees from similar climates around the world can thrive for generations to come! The staff at Happy Trees will make sure you understand the care your trees require to help your trees get established and thrive for your grandchildren to enjoy.

This year, winter slapped us with one last whiplash of plummeting temperatures and frigid conditions in mid-April- just as many plants were budding out or in flower. Water filled tissue within the outer layers of tree trunks froze and damaged the xylem and phloem that carry water and nutrients to the leaves from the roots, much like our own circulatory systems. This could explain why so many sensitive plants and trees didn’t make it this year.

It’s a miracle that we can have trees planted in our yards in the first place. How fantastic is it that farmers can cultivate and plant trees, dig them up and wrap the root balls in burlap, truck them across half the country, and store them in nurseries? Then companies like Happy Trees can pick them up and plop them in your yard! Really cool when you stop to think about it. Trees need to be handled and planted properly though, and poor handling and planting is probably the #1 reason trees die within the first year.

Trees are living, breathing entities, and loading, transporting, and planting are stressful for these magnificent life forms. At Happy Trees, our suppliers know we’re watching making sure the trees are handled delicately and professionally. When trees are in leaf, we tarp every load and keep speeds under 45 miles per hour- even on the highways. This was easy before COVID when it was impossible to drive over 45 on I-25, but now folks just need to go around, cause we’re not in any hurry. I also spray water over the trees before leaving the nursery to cool them off before the drive. This takes additional time, but I would rather go slow and do things right than have to warranty a tree.

I have never been in the “production” end of this business, where landscape companies contract with home builders to install plants and grass. That’s a cutthroat business, and operators must slap is landscapes without concern for quality in order to make any reasonable margins. I’m working with an HOA in Parker to replace hundreds of builder supplied trees that failed to make it through the first year. We will take our time and make sure that we are doing everything correctly to ensure that these trees get off to a good start and improve property values with each year’s growth.

Water. This is the most critical and essential element for all living things, and trees are no exception. Following the stress of planting, trees need consistent watering for at least the first three years to allow for establishment. This is the time that trees’ roots are penetrating the soil and hunkering in. Roots can’t grow in soil with no moisture, and just like us, no part of a tree’s metabolism can function without adequate moisture.

Generally speaking, for most situations a good soaking 3x per week is sufficient. Soak when watering, but give the soil a chance to drain and somewhat dry out. It can be very difficult to remember to water without the aid of an automatic irrigation system. If your tree is in a drainage area or planted in heavy clay, it may need more time between waterings to drain and dry out. If in sandy soil or exposed to winds or reflected heat, more frequent irrigation may be required. If you go on vacation and the soil dries out completely for even a few days, you’re likely to lose the tree.

Conversely, we probably lose more trees to over-watering than under-watering. Leaves wilt in response to both under and over-watering! For this reason, Happy Trees installs a water gauge with every tree we plant. This is simply a piece of pipe that we insert into the planting hole so that you can slide a dip stick into the pipe and get an understanding of the conditions at the bottom of the planting hole. If the stick comes out wet wait a day or two before watering again. if the soil is muddy and sticky that’s good, probably OK to water. If you poke hard ground and you can’t push the stick into the soil, you’re not watering frequently enough and you could lose the tree. Happy Trees can’t be on site to monitor so it’s your responsibility to check often and understand your trees’ water needs.

Newly planted trees from Happy Trees receive adequate compost soil amendment and fertilizer to get off to a healthy start. We even add microbial fertilizer that inoculates the soil with beneficial bacteria and fungi that condition the soil and break down complex molecules into simple compounds that the trees take up as food. It is unlikely that any newly planted trees expired due to a nutrient deficiency, but long term trees need balanced fertilizers applied at the right times to maintain vigorous health. More on fertilizer can be found in previous blogs.

Occasionally, trees can be attacked by pests or diseases that can ravage newly planted trees. This is rare, but consistent monitoring will help prevent most attacks. After you mow or some evening after work, take time to appreciate your trees and look closely for any symptoms of distress. If caught early most ailments are easy to cure. Love your trees and let Happy Trees know if you see anything amiss. Healthy trees are better able to withstand diseases and insects, so take the time to understand your trees’ water and fertilizer needs and treat accordingly.

All this might seem overwhelming when considering spending money to provide privacy or shade to your home. The professionals at Happy Trees are passionate about trees and we want your trees to thrive as much as you do. We hate warranty work and will do everything we can to make sure you never see us again, unless you want additional trees planted in your yard! If it was easy, anybody could do it. In my next life, I’m hanging my shingle in Portland where you toss out an acorn and in a few weeks you have an Oak tree!