What is wrong with my elderberry bush?

Asked May 18, 2016, 10:35 PM EDT

I planted two elderberries earlier this spring, and one of them (Nova) is suddenly turning brown (see photo). Do you have any idea what the problem might be, and how to remedy it? They're both planted in a mostly sunny spot (the other one is York) with late afternoon shade. I amended the soil with cow manure compost and laid straw on top for mulch. York shows no signs of disease, and both were growing equally well for the last three months, until about a week ago, when Nova's leaves started turning brown. I would very much appreciate your input. Thanks, Diemut

Multnomah County Oregon

3 Responses

Thank you for attaching an image. Based on the appearance of those few leaflets, I suspect your plants are running out of water. The existing rootball of a newly planted shrub dries out very rapidly because the roots haven’t yet extended into the surrounding soil. You may need to water the area of the original rootball every day or two for a week, then every other day for the following week, and so on. With time, you will be able to gradually extend the interval between irrigations. In order to know when to water, stick your finger into the surface of the rootball to determine if it is dry, moist or wet.

Another helpful tactic, especially during the first several months following planting, is to provide temporary shade to help protect your new shrubs against excessive water loss. Doing so will be important on days the temperatures soar, as they have done recently.

A tip for next time you plant, refill the planting hole with only native soil. No manure or other amendment. Further, don’t add any sort of fertilizer, including manure, until the shrubs are well-established, a year or two from now.

Thanks for your reply. I actually doubt that lack of moisture is the problem, as I have been keeping the rootball well watered over the past few months (when it wasn't raining) - I was actually worried that it might be TOO wet! Or maybe it didn't like the compost? Should I scrape off the top layer and replace it with native soil?

Good tip about omitting manure etc. when planting. Does this go for all plants, or just trees and shrubs?

The way to determine the moisture content to the rootball is to feel it. Rainfall often fools gardeners because even a small amount will darken the soil surface but won’t thoroughly moisten an entire rootzone.

If the top surface of the rootball is covered with soil, that additional soil will divert the water away from the roots. Until the plant gets established, remove any cover of soil or compost from the surface of the original root mass.

If the plant is in full leaf, rainfall often is shed beyond the area of the rootball. Thus, you may need to water in spite of any rain that fell.

The guideline to avoid fertilizer is most important when planting a tree or shrub in an individual planting hole. However, it's useful to rake a starter dose of fertilizer into the surface of a planting bed prepared for seasonal flowers and vegetables.