What to Do for a Dying Tree: Pro Tips from Cincinnati Arborists

We’re sometimes asked by our customers in Cincinnati what they can do to help a dying tree, only to discover when we inspect the tree that it’s already dead. In many cases, the tree could have been saved by taking a few simple steps to fix the problems that killed it. Of course, this assumes you notice that the tree is dying before it’s too late to turn the situation around!

In this article, we explain the signs and symptoms that indicate a tree may be dying and describe what to do for a dying tree in the greater Cincinnati metro area. If you can stop further damage to the tree, you may be able to restore the tree to its former glory. But if it’s already dead, there’s not much you can do except have it professionally cut down and removed.

In This Article

  • Discover the subtle signs of a dying tree that many Cincinnati homeowners miss, potentially saving your valuable landscape from silent destruction.
  • Uncover how recent flooding events in neighborhoods like Avondale and Columbia Tusculum may be secretly damaging your trees and learn simple solutions to protect them.
  • Find out why improper mulching could be killing your trees and master the “donut technique” that arborists swear by for optimal tree health in Cincinnati’s urban environment.
  • Learn how to defend your property against invasive pests like the newly-discovered spotted lanternfly that threatens Cincinnati’s trees and gardens.
  • Explore cost-effective ways to nurture your trees’ health, including a $10 soil testing service offered through the Hamilton County Conservation District.

How to Identify the Signs of a Dying Tree

Before you can address the causes of a dying tree, you need to recognize the signs and symptoms of a dying tree. Some symptoms are fairly obvious; others may require an inspection by an ISA certified arborist. Here are a few things to check for if you suspect a tree might be failing:

  • Crumbling, splitting, peeling, or falling bark
  • Severe insect infestations on bark or leaves
  • Sticks and branches dropping constantly
  • Visible signs of rot or tree fungus
  • Tree wounds where a branch broke or was cut improperly
  • Trees not leafing out, or dropping leaves prematurely
  • Brittle, easy-to-break branches
  • Deep cracks in the bark leaving the inner wood exposed
  • Extensive cankers (sunken areas of dead, oozing bark on the trunk)
  • Severe of widespread damage to roots (often by lawnmowers or construction)

Depending on how early you notice any of these signs and symptoms, you may be able to save the tree. But left ignored for too long, a tree with one or numerous symptoms of decline might be destined to fail.

It can be difficult to determine what exactly is wrong with a tree, and if the tree is at risk of dying. If you suspect one of your valuable trees is in decline, it’s worth consulting with a local, certified arborist who can determine the root cause and provide custom solutions to (hopefully) help save your tree.

A Cincinatti homeowner watering their trees in the heat of summer.

What to do for a Dying Tree

Once you’ve identified what’s causing your tree’s declining health, you’ll need to correct the problem(s) quickly to help bolster the tree’s health. Often, one or more of the following steps will help turn things around.

  • Ensure your tree gets the right amount of water
  • Add organic mulch (correctly!) around the tree
  • Professionally prune to remove specific branches
  • Fertilize and add soil amendments
  • Treat the tree for any insect infestation or diseases
  • As a last resort, remove the tree before it fails completely

Manage Moisture Effectively for Struggling Trees

Moisture problems are especially common with urban trees since the soil tends to be compacted, lacking organic matter, and contaminated with chemicals. This is particularly true for street trees throughout the Cincinnati region.

To help prevent a tree from dying, you need to understand a tree’s moisture requirements and make the necessary changes to give them what they need.

If Your Trees Get Too Much Water

Trees that get too much water often suffer from root rot, leaving them unstable and prone to toppling over. They may also have moss or mushroom buildup at the base of the tree, conks growing from the trunk, and weak, fragile growth.

If your trees are in a low-lying area or at the base of a slope, they will likely receive water runoff from your yard or be prone to flooding. We seem to be getting more flooding throughout the city recently, such as from the April 2024 storm that flooded parts of Avondale and Columbia Tusculum.

If a tree is getting too much moisture, you’ll need to reduce the amount of water reaching the tree and/or help the excess water drain more quickly. The best solution depends on why your tree is over-watered. Hint: The first step is always to check your irrigation system settings to make sure you’re not the culprit!

  • For flood-prone areas, the best option is to divert water away before it reaches your trees. For example, in recent years the city of Cincinnati has installed stormwater infrastructure to reduce runoff and flooding in neighborhoods like Riverside, Oakley, and Winton Hills, helping save trees in those areas from certain death.
  • On a smaller scale, you can create a “stream bed” garden feature that will guide excess rainwater to another area in your yard or into a drain.
  • For low-lying areas, grading or levelling your yard can help prevent water from pooling around trees. Call a local landscaping company for help with this.
  • For slow-draining areas, install French drains to help water quickly drain away from your trees.
  • For poorly draining soil, add organic matter to the soil around your tree to help it drain more quickly.
  • For compacted soil, have an arborist relieve soil compaction with a special piece of equipment called an air spade that uses compressed air to excavate soil without damaging tree roots.

You should also prune the tree, as well as nearby trees and shrubs, to allow for more light penetration and airflow around the base of the tree to help overly moist soil dry out more quickly and prevent issues with root rot and tree decay.

If Your Trees Don’t Receive Enough Water

In southwest Ohio’s hot, dry summers, trees can easily suffer from drought stress. Trees that don’t get enough water will have:

  • wilted leaves,
  • smaller leaves,
  • scorched leaves, or
  • leaves that change colors or drop prematurely.

If a tree isn’t receiving enough moisture, here are a few things you can do.

  • If you don’t have an irrigation system in place, consider installing one.
  • If you only need to water a few select trees or shrubs, you can install low-flow drip irrigation or use a soaker host to ensure the plants that need the excess water receive it.
  • Alternatively, let a hose run at a low rate until the water penetrates at least 2 feet into the soil, moving the hose every hour or so to another spot around the drip edge of the tree.

PRO WATERING TIP: The key with watering a tree is to deliver water to the tree roots, most of which are between 12 to 18 inches below the soil surface. And whatever you do, don’t water the tree trunk! The feeder roots are found at the drip edge of the tree, approximately right below the outer edge of the tree canopy; that’s where you need to water.

It also helps to add mulch around the base of your trees (which we’ll talk about next), as its help manage moisture in the soil.

During extended periods without rainfall, it may help to practice deep root watering, which sends water deep into the soil where the roots are, rather than keeping the moisture on the surface.

Add Organic Mulch Around Your Trees

Mulching your trees seems simple, but it’s vital for their health – if it’s done properly.

  • Good organic mulch will help the soil retain moisture and prevent it from drying out too quickly. This is especially important in sunny locations.
  • Mulch also regulates the temperature of the soil and the roots, preventing the roots from getting too warm in summer or too cold in winter.
  • By mulching around the base of a tree, you won’t risk damaging the roots with a lawnmower or slashing the bark with a string trimmer, both of which often happen when grass grows near the tree trunk.

How to Apply Mulch to Your Trees for Maximum Health

There are right and wrong ways to mulch a tree. If you want to restore the health of your tree, make sure you use organic mulch like wood chips, bark nuggets, or pine needles. Avoid using gravel or synthetic mulch, as these can cause the soil and roots to heat up.

Here’s how to apply mulch correctly:

  • Spread a layer about 3 inches deep all the way around the tree out to the drip line (or as far out as you can)
  • Do not make a mound, otherwise known as a “mulch volcano,” as that will make the situation worse by creating a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria and encouraging root rot.
  • Keep mulch at least 6 inches from the base of the tree (basically, it’ll look like a donut around your tree).
  • Make sure the root flare (the point at which the roots attach to the trunk) is exposed and not covered with soil or mulch.

Lefke arborists pruning a large, struggling tree in a residential yard near Cincinnati, OH.

Prune Trees Properly to Improve Tree Health

If your tree has any dead, dying, or damaged branches, they should be pruned right away. Also cut off any diseased or heavily bug-infested branches to prevent the disease or insect pest from spreading.

If you notice any branches rubbing together, prune out the less desirable branch. Constant rubbing can cause wounds that allow pests or diseases an entry point into your tree.

Have an arborist regularly prune your tree to increase airflow and light penetration within the tree’s canopy. This can help prevent fungal infections and boost overall tree health.

If you trim your trees yourself, make sure to cut the branch just outside the branch collar (the raised area on the branch where it connects to the trunk or a larger branch). Cutting here minimizes wounds and allows the tree to heal more easily and quickly.

If your tree is diseased or heavily infested with bugs, sanitize tools between pruning each branch to prevent the possibility of spreading the pest or disease.

Fertilize Trees That are Lacking Nutrients

A tree that appears to be dying might not be getting all the nutrients it needs to thrive. This is common in urban or suburban areas, where the rich topsoil was removed when building homes and roads. It’s also a common problem for street trees along many Cincinnati roads.

If a tree doesn’t get the macro- and micro-nutrients it needs, you’ll often notice stunted growth, discolored leaves, and premature leaf drop.

Have the soil around the affected tree tested to determine the exact nutrient deficiencies that need to be addressed. This will ensure you apply the correct type and amount of fertilizer to help your tree. The wrong amount or type of fertilizer can do more harm than good, leading to further decline in your dying tree.

<blockquote> WHERE TO GET A SOIL TEST – The Hamilton County Conservation District partners with PennState Extension to provide soil testing services to Cincinnati residents for only $10.

Quickly Deal with Insects and Diseases that Attack Trees

Tree pests are one of the leading causes of urban and residential tree death in the Cincinnati area. Common and destructive pests include:

  • Emerald ash borer – These invasive pests are present in every county of Ohio and kill millions of ash trees each year
  • Spongy moth – Formerly called gypsy moth, this invasive pest can kill oak trees in as little as 2 years
  • Spotted lanternfly – Recently discovered in Cincinnati, the invasive spotted lanternfly can damage many trees and plants, including many fruit trees, maples, and more.

Different types of pests can kill mature trees relatively quickly. If you notice any signs of insect infestations, have a certified arborist inspect your trees immediately to limit damage and increase the likelihood of saving the tree.

In many cases, prevention is the best (and, sometimes, the only viable) option to save trees from destructive insects. Other times, there are effective treatments to control destructive insect populations. The key is to apply any preventive or control measures at the time when they’ll be most effective. That’s usually before you notice visible signs, which is why it’s so important to have an arborist assess your trees and develop a treatment plan.

Lefke arborists removing a dying tree in Cincinnati before it becomes a safety hazard.

If a Dying Tree Can’t be Saved, Remove It

If a struggling tree is neglected for too long, it’s not likely to recover. When a dying tree is beyond the point at which it can be saved, or if it’s already dead, you should have skilled arborists remove the tree, lest it become a safety hazard. Dead trees are often brittle, prone to storm damage, and can drop large branches or fall over without warning.

Lefke Tree Experts Can Help Save Your Dying Tree

If you suspect that any of your trees may be dead or dying, it’s best to invite a professional arborist over for a closer look. A local Cincinnati arborist can determine the root of the problem and craft a custom plan to minimize damage, improve tree health, and maximize the chances of recovery. Or, if the tree is already dead, they can give you a tree removal plan.

Call Lefke Tree Experts today at 513-325-1783 or use our simple online form to request a tree inspection. Our team of highly-trained and certified arborists is here to help save Cincinnati’s trees and make our city a greener place to live.

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About Lefke Tree Experts

Our professional tree services include tree removal, tree pruning and trimming, clearing, and stump grinding for the greater Cincinnati metro area. We are a fully insured company with the training, equipment, and expertise needed to get the job done right. If there’s a tree in your yard that needs to be trimmed or removed, call us today!

You can always reach us at 513-325-1783.