How to Save a Dying Tree
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How to Save a Dying Tree

A tree that is showing signs of stress or dying can be saved with these simple tips.

The long and dry winter is coming to an end and you start looking around the yard. You’re noticing that some of the trees aren’t looking so well. Evergreens especially can start to look brown and start dropping their needles. On some types of evergreens this can be normal so it’s best to know what type of tree you are looking at and what its characteristics are.

Many parts of the United States are once again in drought conditions and the dry winds of spring do not help the situation. The lack of snow and snow cover with the evaporation effect of the wind blowing can dry the tree itself and the ground all the way down to the roots. In a bad drought condition your local area might even have water restrictions, which we have been dealing with on and off here since the late 1970s. You can see and feel the ground underneath your tree is hard as rock, and any watering on the top might just run off and not soak in at all. What you need to do is called root feeding or root watering.

Most tree roots are at a depth of between 6” and 24” and spread out an area of two to four times the diameter of the tree crown. For evergreens this usually isn’t very far out. The one way to really help a drought hurt or dying tree is to root feed it. At any hardware store or garden shop, you can buy what is called either a root feeder or a water needle. The one product I have used most is called the Ross root feeder. It is a long skinny pipe with a canister at the top and a connection for a garden hose. In the canister you can put fertilizer pellets that will fertilize the tree at the roots as you water it. You don’t have to use the fertilizer pellets, you can just attach the hose to the root feeder and water the roots.

To use the root feeder, attach the garden hose to it and push the needle into the ground. If the ground is really hard and compacted, turn on the water and let the water work for you and this will help push the root feeder into the ground easily. There is usually a lever on the top of the root feeder that controls the flow of the water. You can have the lever fully open or let the water soak into the ground slowly. You would root feed under the outer branches known as the drip zone. Usually you go around the tree four times. The package will have specific instructions on where to place the root feeder at how many places and at what depth depending on the size and type of the tree. There are several different types of fertilizer pellets depending if the tree is an evergreen or deciduous tree or as I call them, the kind with leaves.

The first time I used a root feeder, we had bought a house in the middle of a terrible drought and with strict watering restrictions. There was a 12’ ponderosa pine in the middle of the yard and it was almost totally brown. Everyone said it was dead and I should just take it out. I decided to try root feeding it. I did use the fertilizer pellets the first time and then over the summer continued to use the root feeder to get water to the roots. The next summer the tree was healthy and green and to this day it is about the nicest ponderosa pine on the block and about 30’ tall.


You don’t have to use the fertilizer pellets at all, just a good deep watering is all that’s needed sometimes to bring back a stressed tree. If the tree isn’t responding to the root feeding, check for bugs. Two things to look for are bugs that are boring into the bark of the tree or take a piece of paper and hold it under a branch of an evergreen and shake the branch. If tiny bugs fall onto the paper that could indicate a bug problem, you might try spraying the tree with a good hard spray that will knock off many of the bugs, otherwise you should call a tree doctor or arborist to check out the tree.

Dry windy and especially drought conditions can really stress a tree and a tree under stress conditions might not be strong enough to fight off bugs or disease. So keeping the roots good and watered is very helpful. You don’t want to over do the watering. Usually the water will soak in, but if it gets too wet than the roots can be starved for oxygen as the water takes the place of oxygen. To increase airflow and moisture to your tree roots you could take out the grass and put in bark or wood ships around the tree.

Root feeding is a great way to get the trees and bushes ready for another hot summer. Using the root feeder on really hard compacted parts of your lawn also works well to get the grass in shape.

One other note about the hose you use. Last spring I bought a new hose at Wal-Mart. It wasn’t like the hoses I used in the past apparently as the first thing it did when I turned on the water with the root feeder attached was expand and almost burst. You might want to make sure you have a more sturdy hose. That’s the first time I ever had that happen though.

© 2009 Sam Montana

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Comments (11)

I didn't know it could be done like this Sam! Thanks. This is a GREAT article.


Thank you for your insights on how to save a dying tree. I really need to try your suggestion to a hugh tree in my front lawn. I noticed the leaves are turning brown even as early as Summer onset. The surrounding trees are lush green. I see red bore ants on my drive way and a few climbing up and down the stressed tree. I purchased two cans (40 oz each) of Bayer's tree care solution, mixed it with 2.5 gallons of water and carefully sprinkled it around the tree trunk. The tree measures 57 inches all the circumference, at 3 ft above the ground level. I sprinkled the Bayer solution from the base to 2 ~ 3 ft measured radially on the ground. Prior to sprinkling, I watered and soaked the ground around the tree base the previous evening. Initially the soil was very hard and the water would run away, but I built a circular stop using mulch to 9 inches ht and rewatered. This worked and slowly the soil abosrbed the water. The next evening I sprinkled the Bayer solution. It's just under a week since I did this but I am not sure how helpful this will be to save the tree. I intend to water the tree regularly and wait-watch the effect. Meanwhile, the red ants continue to climb the tree and I suspect they bore into the tree and eat away nutrients and tree sap. Since the tree is huge, I can't spray it. I also bought a pack of ant bait and have carefully spaced it on the ground with a hope the bore ants will carry it to the colony queen.

Sam, I am really worried. I love trees and don't want to see this stressed tree go down. It would be terrible and tragic. Since you seem to have some experience in saving trees, I would love to hear back from you on whether my rescue techniques would work in this case.

Thank you Sam.

Ranked #2 in Gardening

Murali, my best advice would be for you to call the local arborist, tree expert or possibly a county extension office if you have one where you live. There are so many different diseases that can harm trees the sooner you have an expert look at it the better. Where I live we now have a new bug killing trees, the bug is new to our area. It does sound like the area around the tree was very dry and hard, which means it could just need watering. A root feeder will water below the hard soil nicely. If you are in the US, here is a web site that will locate your local county extension office who should be able to help. --If the web site doesn’t work, let me know where you are and I will try and find it for you.


Thanks Sam! I've already scheduled an arborist. Hopefully the tree can be saved if it is not too expensive.

This is excellent advice, My partner is a gardener and couldn't have said it better :D Buzzed up.

Ranked #2 in Gardening

Thank You Norma, I have had very good luck with these methods as long as bugs have not gotten into the tree too much. We have another severe drought going on now where I live and even a healthy tree could use some deep watering as soon as the frost melts.

Thank you for a great article.

Great information, thank-you

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The ultimate problem is severe soil compaction. Soil compaction occurs at any soil that is not Virgin Natural. So all soils become compacted. Compacted soil literally blocks air and water from reaching the root mass so the roots die back to a area very close to the tree's trunk. If you can dig a hole easily with a shovel, there is soil problems. All plants requires and ongoing ebb and flow of air and water to the entire root mass for survival. This helps to create the biomass that then supports the growth of Mycchorizae, a fungus. Without it the plant will die. Squirts of water with a stick and fertilizer pellets are not a fix. Any more than an M&M and a sip of water will keep you alive for a week. The best, permanent, and low cost solution is to install ROOTWELL's ( around the tree. Water and air will reach the roots 24/7 and the tree will respond greatly. An auger is needed, but the work is so much worth the time.