Winter Dieback in Evergreen

(Question)

Our Eastern Red Cedar (at least we think that’s what it is :) is about 12 years old. After the last winter, the bottom branches, as well as the side closest to the house have started to dry up. There is some new growth on the dry branches, but the tree does not look very good. Would you be able to advise if it can be saved? I’m attaching pictures of the needles (for identification) and the tree itself. Thank you!

(Answer)

The good news is that this looks like a case of winter dieback, also known as browning off or desiccation. It may take a few seasons, but it is possible to restore your tree back to health. I think your tree looks like a columnar Chinese Juniper, Juniperus chinensis ‘Columnaris’, especially in the third photo showing its juvenile awl shaped foliage typical of the species. (Eastern Red Cedars , Juniperus virginiana, have tiny overlapping scale like leaves.) Junipers are also susceptible to Kabatina and Phomopsis Blight, which cause very similar looking die back, but you would also see small, fruiting bodies- 0.5 mm diameter black spheres , along the stems. I didn’t see any sign of these in your photos.

All evergreens are susceptible to winter dieback and there are a few steps which you can take to reduce the risk of this occurring. Junipers prefer full sun and grow in most soil types as long as they drain well. They don’t like standing in wet areas. They require little extra watering under normal conditions, but during heat spells and in late fall, before the ground freezes, watering will help keep your trees foliage healthy. Winter die back occurs when the cold winds dry out the leaves and the tree is unable to take up water from the frozen soil to replenish leaf moisture. If you tree is able to take up enough water before the freeze, it is better able to withstand the harsh winter conditions.

As our winters have been unreliable over the past few years, wrapping your tree in burlap after the first snowfall, can reduce the harmful effects of icy winds and snow. Remove the burlap in spring as the weather warms and your tree starts to sprout new growth- usually mid April.

You can prune back the dead stems and branches from your juniper but, as you have noticed, some apparently dead branches sprout new growth. Wait until after your tree has sprouted new growth in the spring then carefully prune back the areas of die back, taking care to avoid any new shoots.

Fertilizing your juniper, every few years, with slow release evergreen fertilizer will give your tree a boost of nutrients to encourage foliage growth to help fill in the bald patches. Apply, as per manufacturers recommendations, in early spring before the shoots appear or not later than mid summer. Don’t ¬†fertilize late in the season or you will stimulate new growth which will get burnt off in the winter.