The decline of a tree is almost always a huge disappointment for its owner. Source: greenlv.wordpress.com
Home gardeners expect to lose annuals and biennials and even perennials, but it’s so shocking when a tree dies! After all, aren’t trees supposed to live for centuries?
Actually no. True enough, there are truly ancient trees, but the vast majority of trees don’t live beyond 150 years … and on the typical suburban lot, what with pollution, extreme temperatures and soil salinization and compaction, a tree 80 years old is a very old specimen indeed. So when you live in a residential development that reaches a certain age and where most of the trees were planted at about the same time, it’s not surprising to see trees starting to die one after the other in the space of only a few years.
Moreover, not all trees will reach a venerable age even under ideal conditions. In the wild, only a very small minority of germinating tree seedlings will even reach adulthood: perhaps one in 100, even one in 1000, depending on the species. In home gardens, the success rate is much greater, usually because we give our trees enough space to grow in and sometimes water or fertilize them … or even treat insect and disease problems.
Despite that, some trees do die “before their time.” While that may be shocking, it’s still normal. It happens in the wild and it happens in our gardens. Most of the time, there isn’t even a clear reason why, but a tree can die at any age. That’s just the way things are!
As the owner of a tree in decline, one losing more branches than it produces, you have essentially two possibilities: you can try to save it or you can plant its replacement.
Prolonging the Life of a Dying Tree
It is not always possible to prolong the life of a dying tree. Often, its decline continues despite your best efforts to save it … and these efforts include the removal of dead branches, regular fertilization, watering during periods of drought and possibly phytosanitary treatments.
Furthermore, I strongly suggest you consult a certified arborist when you have tree troubles: someone who knows his trees well, not one of those self-trained “tree pruners” who figures he knows his way around trees just because he knows how to handle a saw. You need someone who will give you an appropriate—and honest!—evaluation of the state of your tree and who will be able to carry out, if necessary, the necessary treatments.
Often, you can extend the life of a declining tree by several years, even a decade or more. On the other hand, you can almost never restore the vigor of youth to a dying tree.
Plant the Next Generation
That said, as a laidback gardener, I highly recommend planting a replacement tree when you your tree is in decline or when you know it’s doomed in the medium term (an ash tree in an area where the emerald ash borer is present for example).
Instead of investing in saving the aging tree, put your efforts into planting a substitute and taking the necessary steps to ensure that it grows vigorously. That way, when the original does die and you have to cut it down (although removal is not always obligatory: read Trees: Wanted, Dead or Alive!), the replacement tree will already be there to help compensate for its loss!