Early Fall Foliage Means Your Tree is Stressed

Bob Meoak
Written by Bob Meoak
Updated June 15, 2021
red and orange fall leaves on tree
Your trees need some TLC if the leaves turn red or yellow prematurely. (Photo by Eldon Lindsay)

Tree leaves turning colors early indicates distress from drought, insects or disease. Try these 4 steps to boost tree health before fall.

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Vibrant fall colors are one of the best parts of autumn. We expect to see beautiful red, orange and gold foliage in many cities across the country, but certainly not in August. It’s a problem when trees show early signs of fall — well before the summer is over.

Trees experiencing stress often exhibit browning and early leaf drop. If you see this in your own backyard, your trees may be asking for help.

Why tree leaves change color before fall

Trees that don’t get enough water, are plagued by insects or diseases, or are stressed for other reasons may stop producing chlorophyll, causing the fall coloring process to speed up and end before the summer season.

Avoid long-term tree damage

A hot summer can take its toll on trees for years to come. Even after recovering, trees may still be weak and need extra attention for the remainder of the season. Check trees now to help them make it through the remaining hot days.

How to identify a sick tree

Start by checking leaves to see if they are the right color for the season. Leaves should not be yellow — unless naturally yellow — stunted or irregularly shaped. Drought, over-watering and disease can cause leaves to wilt and droop when stressed.

Take care of your trees now by following these four easy steps below, so you can enjoy the fall color well after summer ends.

red leaves in fall
Trees stressed by lack of water, insects or disease may stop producing chlorophyll. (Photo courtesy of The Davey Tree Expert Company)

4 steps for healthy trees

1. Feed — Protect trees from disease, insects and unpredictable weather by giving them the nutrients they need. As long as your trees aren’t experiencing drought, you can apply a slow-release fertilizer according to directions.

2. Hydrate — Water trees once a week from March until October, and twice a week during periods of no or little rain. Only water the area under the tree’s branches, known as the drip zone. Avoid directly irrigating the trunk.

3. Check — Make sure you’re not overwatering by using the “soup can” trick. Place an empty soup can near the tree inside the sprinkler pattern and run the sprinkler very slowly over several hours until 2 to 3 inches has collected in the can.

4. Mulch — Apply wood chips, shredded leaves, pine needles or compost to help trees maintain moisture where they need it — their roots. Spread mulch in a wide circle, no more than 3-inches deep, around the tree to conserve water. Pull mulch back from the trunk of the tree like a donut, not like a volcano.

Think your trees are stressed? Make an appointment with a certified arborist to learn how to care for, protect and enhance the vibrant color of fall for seasons to come.

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