Why is my sequoia turning brown?

Asked December 10, 2020, 8:30 PM EST

My sequoia is 11 yrs old and has been growing outside for the past 5 yrs. During the outside growing years it has done well and had been healthy. After a very dry winter last year and extremely hot and dry summer this year the tree is showing severe brown and dying branches from the bottom up. There was some new green growth in near the trunk, but now it is turning brown. I did water it in the late fall to no avail. Now that winter is here I'm afraid it will not survive. I grew it from a seedling, and would hate to lose it. I live in North central West Virginia. Any advice would be appreciated.

Marion County West Virginia

9 Responses

You have certainly invested a lot of heart into your tree. Giant Sequoia have limited success in WV as they do not tolerate clay soil well. They prefer cool conditions (max summer temps of 75-84), require well drained, sandy soils, and do not tolerate drought.

1. After being grown in a pot for 5 years I worry that the roots may have grown in a circular pattern. Additionally, when there is a lot of clay in the soil, a planting hole can act like a pot leading to more encircling/girdling roots which reduce available nutrients and water and can eventually kill the tree. I am going to assume that you followed proper planting techniques by keeping the root collar at or above the soil line, cutting any encircling roots, and roughing up the edges of a wide shallow hole.

2. Our weather in 2019 was extremely wet. Soil saturation in much of the state made many of our conifers more susceptible to root diseases. This was followed by an extremely dry summer in 2020 which further compounded the stress factors on our conifers. Your Sequoia would be especially susceptible to problems associated with poorly drained soil and drought.

3. While we have the preferred acidic soils in a lawn environment the clay in our soils may lead to compaction further reducing drainage.

Steps to take to reduce tree stress:

1. Do NOT fertilize. This will cause your tree to put effort into building new growth instead of fighting whatever is impacting it.

2. Get a moisture meter (about $35) monitor once a week until the soil freezes. When moisture levels drop, slow water your tree (use a bucket with small holes drilled in the bottom set outside the leafy area). Your tree will need about one gallon per inch of diameter (4.5 feet above the soil level on the uphill side). However, if the soil shows it is moist at any time stop watering. If you notice that your soil is often moist due to a drain or seep, moving the tree to a drier area may be needed.

3. Add mulch, and a lot of it. This will most importantly help improve drainage and balance moisture, but it will also protect it from mower damage, add nutrients, and keep the pH where it needs to be. Gathered oak leaves and pine needles would be perfect but anything that can decompose will work. Give the tree as wide of a mulch ring as you can tolerate. Grass is very greedy and steals nutrients and water (putting a layer of newspaper, woven ground cover, or landscape fabric under the mulch will keep the weeds down but do NOT use solid plastic. Keep the mulch at least 6” away from the bark to avoid rodent damage and rot.

4. Keep an eye on the tree. Use a magnifying lens to examine the needles for black dots and check the base of the tree regularly for damage.

5. Aerate your lawn using a plug aerator every fall. This will reduce the general compaction caused by your lawn mower. Reducing how hard the roots have to fight to get access to nutrients and moisture. This will improve drainage for your tree and the health of your lawn.

Best of luck in nursing your tree back to health!

Thanks Karen for your informative response. You provided a lot of interesting info about growing Sequoias in WV. I don't think my problem is disease or insects. I think I neglected to provide adequate water during the hot dry summer we had this year. Now that the tree is getting some size to it, it will need more water during dry spells. You also point out other problems that need attention. It's obvious I don't have a large enough mulch ring and adequate mulch. Another thing you mentioned was root girdling. I have never heard of that. I believe this may be part of the problem. I'm providing some more pictures of the base of the tree with the roots circling the trunk. Please let me know what you think and what I should do about it. I do have some small new green growth where the dead branches meet the trunk. Not much but some. Hopefully this is a good sign.Thanks again for your informative response.

Root girdling is indeed an issue here. Those roots will need to be cut off or they will kill the tree. If you feel comfortable and up for some labor, I can walk you through the steps, but it would be best if you could find an arborist to take a look as the roots are quite large. The picture leads me to believe some underground work may be needed to make sure there aren't any roots doing the same thing under the soil line. You can see if there are any near you on this site: Find an Arborist (treesaregood.org)

The lower shoots are called epicormic sprouts and they are a sign of stress that often accompanies root issues.

Thanks Karen for the quick response. If you think my tree definitely has a root girdling problem that can kill the tree, action needs to be taken. I feel I am capable of performing the task with your guidance. I feel the sooner the girdling roots are removed the better for the health of the tree. Also is it alright to do this procedure during winter? Although I will tackle the job myself, I plan on contacting an arborist like you suggested.

You will need to exercise extreme care in removing these roots as they are already pushing into the cambial layer of the tree. This layer lies just under the bark and is the only place the tree actually grows (which is why weed eaters are so dangerous to trees). If the cambial layer is significantly damaged your tree may not survive, but if you don't do anything, your tree will likely be gone within the next 1-10 years. On the positive side of things, trees focus their winter growth on their roots, so dealing with the problem now is better than the spring or summer.
Please know there are a lot of factors that I cannot see from the images. I worry I would be giving you poor advice before an onsite evaluation could be done. I thoroughly believe that a good arborist is worth the cost. This tree has the potential to outlive you and provide many services to your family and the environment. I would advise you doing this work yourself only if you cannot afford an arborist. I look forward to hearing the evaluation from the arborist.

Thanks Karen for your response. Last night I watched a lot of YouTube videos on removing girdling roots. Some were very informative. So I tackled the job myself. I was very careful not to get into the main trunk bark of the tree. I removed dirt from around the tree as far down as I could. I found multiple girdling roots all the way around the tree. Some quite large and others smaller. I worked at this for about four hours. I feel I did a good job and did not do much damage to the main trunk of the tree. When finished I back filled dirt around the roots. I did not put dirt in area of removed girdling roots. I left this part of the tree trunk exposed, I did cover with pine straw. Photos attached, please let me know what you think. Thanks, Dan Rundle, Fairmont WV.

Step one is done. You did a fine job, but the tree took some significant damage from the girdling, hopefully it will bounce back. You can replace the soil over the wounds. The tree is already pumping chemicals to the wounds to seal them off but moisture will be key to the trees survival. Not too much and not too little. You will need to water it like a baby tree for a while until it regrows enough roots. I would watch it and water if we have a dry spell for the next two years. Including winter time unless you have snow or the soil is frozen. Remember to put the water bucket on the outside edge of the crown to encourage the roots to grow outwards.

Do NOT fertilize it or your nearby lawn until the tree has returned to good health. Watch closely for smaller than usual needles as these are a sign of decline.

The pine mulch is great, but you should pull it back away from the trunk so mice don't nibble your healing tree. Make sure it isn't deeper than 3".

I wish you the best of luck with your tree's recovery. I hate to say this but your tree has some significant healing to do, and despite your best efforts it may not be able to pull through. Keep building the mulch each year and keep it watered. That's all you can do now.

Thanks Karen, you have been very helpful in this endeavor. I feel that with your expert advice and my labor we may have saved my sequoia. It is very special to me. I originally bought it as a seedling growing in a small plastic container. My wife and I were in northern California on vacation. It was purchased at Jedadia Smith redwoods state park in the souvenir shop. Once back home in WV. I grew it in pots as it grew bigger. For three years we used it as our indoor Christmas tree. Just a little back history on the tree. I will keep you informed over time on its "hopeful"progress. Thanks again, Dan Rundle

Trees can sometimes become part of our families and it seems like this one has. Best of luck, I look forward to your updates and am rooting for your success. I am going to close this question now (unfortunately I cannot leave it open to track the progress and growth of your tree through the years). Please email me updates on your tree at karen.cox@mail.wvu.edu.