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GARDENING: Trees, trees, everywhere dying trees in Grand Junction

Curt Swift
CURT’S CORNER
Free Press Gardening Columnist
Branch breakage at a city park.
Courtesy / Curt Swift |

The number of dead and dying trees throughout Grand Junction is amazing. I’ve never seen as many trees in such bad shape as I have this year. Trees on private as well as public property are suffering. Neighborhood parks, Lincoln Park golf course, Riverside Parkway, and even Canyon View Park have dead, dying, and stressed trees. Shrubs are also suffering. As you drive along Riverside Parkway be sure to admire the many dead shrubs.

Some people may think this plant damage is due to winter damage. I would have to agree on this point but only for certain trees such as the non-native Scots and Austrian pine. Each year these trees suffer from our hot summer days due to their inability to absorb adequate moisture especially when they don’t receive deep, infrequent irrigations. They suffer again from inadequate winter moisture. Some areas correct the winter deficit by using water trucks. A few of these non-natives are infested with pine wilt nematode, but not in the number to explain the mass die-off we are experiencing. Several years ago most of the Blue Atlas Cedar in the Grand Valley died due to winter weather. These non-natives were well out of their element and should not have been planted in the first place, but as gardeners we like to try new plants.

Water, the lack of or too much, can explain some of other dead, dying and stressed cottonwoods, box elder, catalpa, and other trees. Many, especially on private property, receive little or no supplemental irrigation whatsoever while others receive so much water their roots are rotten. Some trees, even newly planted trees, have trunk damage, are planted too deep, or have girdling roots that should have been removed when planted. All of these problems are easy to avoid if proper attention is given to planting and maintenance.



Some of the dying trees are due to insects, mites and foliar diseases and lack of proper care to control these problems. The philosophy of some people appears to be: “It is easier to remove the tree than to properly maintain the tree.” Many American elms have branch tip die-back due to the lack of control of the European elm scale. This scale insect emerged in the second week of June and moved to leaves to feed. From the leaves they moved to feed on the twigs and smaller branches killing them in the process. If you look into the tops of American elms in our neighborhood parks you will often find branch die-back not due to winter weather but the lack of adequate management of this insect.

Branch die-back in our ash trees is typically due to lack of management of the bud gall mite. This pest is about a quarter the size of a spider mite and hides under bud scales. This mite feeds on buds preventing the development of leaves. When this occurs, sugars and starches necessary to keep the associated branches alive are not produced. Sugars and starches flow down the branch; they do not move to the tip of the branch unless there is active growth. Without sugars and starches to “feed” the branch cells, the branch dies.



Sycamore throughout town suffered badly this year, not due to the winter, but to spring weather. Whenever we have a wet spring, treatments for sycamore anthracnose need to be applied (or injected) to prevent this disease from killing branches. Dead branches weaken the tree making it susceptible to other problems. Maybe we should just cut down all the sycamore so we don’t have to maintain these trees the way they should be.

BRANCH BREAKAGE

When you see a branch that has broken free of the tree, it is typically the result of adequate leaves on that branch. Without leaves, the sugars and starches necessary for the tree to develop the branch tissue to support the branch’s weight is not possible. These branches eventually break free and drop. As far as I know, no one yet has been killed by one of these falling branches.

Branch breakage can be due to root injury. This is a common and delayed occurrence when an irrigation system is installed and trenches are cut through the roots of trees. In many cases, the damage to the tree does not appear until 15 to 20 years after trenching. Tunneling under trees is a more expensive endeavor than trenching but helps prevent the limb breakage we are now seeing in some of our neighborhood parks. The extended period between severing a root and the decline of the tree is due to the tree’s ability to store water and nutrients. Once that supply is depleted the tree declines, branches break, and wood rot organisms and borers invade; not necessarily in that order. Quite often I hear people say a tree died because it had borers or a fungus. Or they provide some other excuse as a way to neglect the true reason for the tree’s decline. Borers and wood rot organisms are mostly secondary invaders taking advantage of the stress caused by mites, insects, foliar diseases, root injury, poor planting techniques, etc.

Some trees have a genetic trait that allows them to drop leaves and branches whenever they are under water stress. Members of the willow family, which includes cottonwoods, poplars, aspen, etc., are great examples. When they are stressed due to lack of water uptake, insect or spider mite infestations, root injury, etc., they will shed leaves and branches to reduce their water use. Proper care of these trees greatly reduces this shedding.

SUGGESTION for the city

Before the City of Grand Junction councilors develop new neighborhood parks, I would suggest they look into the lack of the city’s ability to maintain the parks they already have. Will the current staff be stretched even thinner due to the need to “maintain” new parks? Whether the problem of lack of maintenance of city trees and shrubs is due to lack of personnel, assigning staff to non-related projects, or a lack of follow through and oversight is something the city council needs to look into before taking on the prospect of developing additional parks.

Grand Junction is one of the many cities holding the title of “Tree City USA.” Interestingly, when you look at the four standards to qualify for this honor, have a tree board or department, have a tree care ordinance, have an annual budget of at least $2 per capita, and host an arbor day ceremony and issue a proclamation, there is nothing in the standards saying the trees have to be alive.

Obviously, dead trees still qualify for the honor of “Tree City USA. The main goal of this honor, however, is to “have a viable tree management plan and program.” A management plan and program is worthless if it can’t be implemented. Maybe the management plan should include privatizing park maintenance. I’m sure there are arborists who would jump at the opportunity to be responsible for the maintenance of the trees and shrubs in Grand Junction’s neighborhood parks.

Dr. Curtis E. Swift is a retired horticulture agent with the Colorado State University Extension. Reach him at Curtis.Swift@alumni.colostate.edu, 970-778-7866 or check out his blog at http://SwiftsGardeningBlog.blogspot.com. He owns Swift Horticultural Consulting and High Altitude Lavender.


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