Did my tree drown?

Asked January 20, 2020, 2:31 PM EST

Hi, we have a catalpa tree that is around 15ft tall. It’s been planted for about 1&1/2 years. It was looking super healthy and had a ton of new growth this past summer. We live in the Seattle area. This winter has been brutal with rain and we realized that the area where the catalpa is planted was not draining well. We hooked up a hose and were able to drain the area; However, my catalpa looks dead. When I scratch the surface of branches and/or the trunk, it looks as if it’s dried out. I’m not sure if this is just it’s own way of making it through winter months or if it possibly drowned. I keep finding info about what to expect when the tree doesn’t get enough water, but I am struggling to find anything about it having received too much water for a period of time. Help! Please! Is it possible that my catalpa might come back this summer? Should I dig it up and relocate, or would that be even more stress on it at this point? Any info you!

King County Washington

1 Response

Hi--Poor drainage will kill a tree faster than drought stress because the roots suffocate. It's hard to tell if your drain remedy is able to mitigate the damage. One way to check if the tree is dead is to check out the buds on branches--the little nubbins where leaves will appear. Pinch off a few at various places around the tree. If they are green and plump, the tree is not dead. If they are dry and shriveled, you have lost the tree.

We still have several months of rain left to come this winter. If you are confident that your drainage pipe is taking care of the problem, and your bud-pinch test shows the tree is still alive, then take your chances and see how the tree does this season. If you are concerned that your drainage measures might not be enough, you may want to consider transplanting it. Here is a good guide for transplantation--and explains how to make certain that the new location has adequate drainage: https://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-and-plant-advice/horticulture-care/planting-and-transplanting-trees-and-shrubs

If you decide to transplant, your rootball should be about 8-12 inches for every inch of trunk diameter at chest height. So if the diameter of the trunk at chest height is 5 inches, your root ball diameter would need to be 3.5 to 5 feet in diameter. Dig about 2 feet down, then cut beneath the roots, rounding it into a ball shape. Tilt the tree and continue working around the perimeter. Carefully put the root ball on a tarp, and transport it to the new site for immediate transplantation. Dig a shallow saucer-shaped hole that is twice the width of the rootball and a couple inches LESS than the height of your rootball. Carefully place it in the hole and backfill with the soil you dug out. DO NOT add any soil amendments or fertilizer. Tamp down gently around the roots as you go with your hands. When you’re done, water thoroughly to settle in the soil around the roots to eliminate air pockets.

According to what I’ve read, homeowners should only attempt to transplant trees with a trunk diameter of 2 inches or less. If it’s bigger than that, you’ll be better off with a nursery professional. Good luck!