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Sunday - August 17, 2008

From: Fairview, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Planting, Soils, Transplants, Watering, Trees
Title: Leaf fall from Cedar Elm planted in clay
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I saw the answer to leaves falling off a cedar elm planted in clay. However I planted a Cedar Elm in my back yard. I dug a hole in the grass then planted and put grass back on top. I water every other day, but all the leaves have fallen off. How can I bring this tree back around. I live in Fairview Texas. I am not very good with gardening at all.

ANSWER:

We're assuming you are referring to this previous Mr. Smarty Plants answer on planting a Cedar Elm in clay and how to water it. As we pointed out in that answer, clay is okay for Ulmus crassifolia (cedar elm) as long as the drainage is good. Before we do anything else, let's see if your tree is alive. Do the thumbnail test-scratch off a little sliver of bark in several different locations on branches and trunk. If the material under the bark is green, the tree is alive. If not, you might as well forget it, pull it out and make firewood, and plant another tree in a different way.

If it is alive, there are still several things we don't know about your situation, and can only comment generally on what may have caused the leaf fall on your tree. First, the hole. A tree being planted needs a hole larger and deeper than the circumference of the rootball. It needs to have some organic matter such as compost worked into the soil before it is planted. This material will help the drainage in clay, as well as help to make trace elements in the soil available to the roots. Second, it does NOT need grass growing on top of it. Most tree roots are in the upper 12" of the soil, where they will be competing with grass roots, usually gluttons for moisture and nutrients. Get the grass out of there, now, and make a bigger grassless ring around the tree. Try not to damage the roots as you do this, but at the same time, try to work in a little compost or leaf mold. Next, mulch the entire tree ring with shredded bark mulch. This will help to protect the roots from heat and cold, and help to hold the moisture in.

The last thing we don't know is how recently you planted your tree. If it was very recently, in the Texas summer that was pretty hot and dry in North Central Texas, the tree is suffering from severe transplant shock. We strongly recommend that woody plants be planted in the dormant, cool season, November to January in Texas. You can hardly go back and unplant the tree, hold it until November and do it over. About the best you can do is trim off the upper 1/4 to 1/3 of the tree, leaving as many green leaves (if any) as possible for nutrition. Now, stick a hose down in the soil around the tree (which you have hopefully loosened up with compost and mulch) and let water slowly dribble in until it shows on the surface. If it remains on the surface more than about a half an hour, your drainage is poor. Try watering less but more frequently. The tree really needs some leaves, and we hope they start poking their heads out with the deluxe treatment you are giving it. If the bark still reveals green beneath the "skin", keep trying until Spring. If it doesn't leaf out then, again, kiss it goodbye. You did your best.

 

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