University of Illinois Extension
Bruce Spangeberg

These articles are written to apply to the northeastern corner of Illinois. Problems and timing may not apply outside of this area.

Stateline Yard & Garden

Early Fall Color on Trees

August 10, 2000

As the summer rolls along and fall approaches, some trees may start turning color early. While shade trees that start turning color early may be nice accents, these trees are often signaling some type of a problem. Trees turning color already in August most likely are stressed or in decline and call for a closer look to see what the problems may be.

Certainly the weather can contribute to stress in trees. Drought and severe winters are two examples. Neither seems logical here in 2000, but sometimes past seasons can still have an influence on tree health. Weather problems for trees in 2000 include spring freezes after very mild weather in early March and flooding in summer from very heavy rains.

While the early color shows up in the canopy, start your inspection by looking down to the base of the tree. Root zones are a key area. Root damage is a very common stress factor that can lead to early fall color and decline. Types of damage may include direct injury from digging near the tree, injury from soil fill placed over the root zone, chemicals in the soil, excess water, or too little water. In addition, consider a girdling root to be a possibility, as roots growing across others or cutting into the trunk can be a serious problem.

Pay attention to the very base of the trunk. There should be a natural root flare in this location. If the trunk goes straight into the ground like a telephone pole, problems are likely to occur. This situation may be due to soil fill, girdling roots, or perhaps planting the tree too deeply.

Many of these root problems offer little in terms of solutions. Girdling roots can be cut after carefully digging away the soil. Most of the other problems are preventable, but little can be done once damage has occurred.

Examine trunks for wounds of various types, perhaps from equipment, storms, winter damage, or animals. Since the "lifeline" of trees (sending up water and nutrients) is just under the bark, damage to trunks can have significant impact and may be why a tree is stressed and declining. Applying pruning wound dressing to damaged trunk areas is not suggested.

The best overall suggestion for stressed trees is to avoid further stress. Water during drought periods, including fall. Recall last fall and winter, although mild, were very dry. Perhaps fertilizing this fall or next spring may help. Also prune out dead wood, but avoid heavy pruning in late summer and early fall.


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