How to tell if your tree is healthy

Trees are a top priority to most homeowners.  The shade and ornamental value of a mature tree in the home landscape is difficult if not impossible to replace.  For this reason, it is important to consistently monitor trees for issues that may be affecting their growth.  Planting (following proper technique) a tree recommended for Kansas and ongoing preventative care are the best ways to keep trees in the peak of health.

Monitor new growth

One of the most important clues in determining the health of any tree is the amount of new growth that the tree produces.  A healthy tree should have a minimum of 4 to 6 inches of new growth every year.  Check branches with the tips in the open sun that aren’t shaded by the tree itself.  Anything less than 4 inches on a majority of branches may suggest that the tree is under a great deal of stress.

New growth is easy to identify, simply look for a color change in the stem/branch.  New growth is almost always greener than the previous growth from a year earlier.  There is also often an area of what looks like compressed growth where growth transitions from one year to the next.

New growth is usually greener than the previous growth from a year earlier

Monitor the trunk, leaves

A healthy tree should have intact bark all the way up and down the trunk.  Any areas of splitting, cracking, or discoloration signal a problem.  Bark (cambium) damage can vary widely in its degree of severity.  Bark damage can often be prevented with proper care of new trees until they are well established. This often includes tree trunk protection or wrapping while trees are young.

Sunscald/freeze damage to a tree trunk
Severe trunk injury

Leaves of healthy trees should be full sized and a deep green color.  Often trees suffering from nutrient deficiencies or stress will have smaller than normal leaves that may look yellow or generally off color.  Unhealthy leaves are much more susceptible to diseases and sun/wind scorch that will likely cause them to drop off the tree early.  Action should be taken if leaf problems are identified.

A leaf showing iron chlorosis symptoms

Tree stress is cumulative

Remember that tree stress is cumulative (builds slowly over time) and many problems we are seeing this year with trees were likely caused several years back.  Early hard freezes during recent fall seasons, huge temperature swings, and very dry winters with long periods of drought have led to many cases of tree decline.   It can sometimes take years for stress to finally appear in a tree after the stress  event actually happened.

The accumulating stress often damages root systems.  In some cases, root systems get damaged enough that trees begin to struggle when entering summer heat and stress.  Roots can keep up with moisture demands during the cooler spring weather, but may not keep up during the heat.  Trees sometimes appear to suddenly collapse or die or lose many branches they can no longer support when summer temperatures arrive.

Focus on prevention

Continued monitoring and prevention of stress is important on damaged and healthy trees alike.  With our current drought conditions, it is important to monitor soil moisture now and especially during the summer on a regular basis.  Timely deep watering during this current drought will help trees cope with many environmental stresses.   If a tree is heavily damaged and not likely to recover, make a plan to replace it with a Kansas recommended variety.  Be sure to follow correct planting and care procedures to ensure problems are prevented from the start.