Sudden death of apple tree began at the bottom

Q: I’ve attached a picture of what was once a beautiful, thriving Golden Delicious apple tree. Within one week it turned brown and died. It’s a young tree. I didn’t plant it myself. I purchased my home last July and it had just recently been planted.

A: Because the entire tree died from top to bottom we can be relatively certain the problem was at the very bottom of the tree, in the trunk or the roots. The most common reasons are watering too much or too little, planting the tree too deeply, and leaving mulch piled around the trunk when it is young.

First, manually run the irrigation cycle and make sure that water is getting to the tree. If that cycle is operating normally and other plants on that cycle seem to be doing fine then we can probably eliminate watering. But you must check this first since this is the easiest one to eliminate.

Next, let’s eliminate planting too deeply and problems with the rock mulch. Get something to kneel on and pull the rock mulch away from the trunk. With your fingernail or a penknife cut into the part of the trunk, just barely beneath outer bark, that was covered with mulch. Make the same cut into the trunk just above the bark or make one long cut to include both.

The color of the trunk just under the bark should be identical in color in both spots: white not brown. If the color just under the bark that was covered with mulch is brown, then the tree died from collar rot due to the mulch in contact with a young trunk. Never put mulch, whether it is wood or rock, directly against the trunk for the first four growing seasons. Keep it 6 inches away from the trunk until it is older.

Lastly, with the mulch pulled away from the trunk and still on your knees, dig the soil away from the trunk until you find the first roots. These first roots should be no deeper than about ½ inch below the soil. If roots coming from the trunk are deeper than this and soil has been placed around the trunk and the part of the trunk covered by the soil was brown, then it died of collar rot because it was planted too deeply, a common mistake.

Always plant all trees and shrubs with no more than ½ inch of soil covering the roots and make sure the tree is staked the first growing season.

Q: A friend of a friend has two fig trees that produce just the best figs I have ever tasted. So I am planning on taking cuttings and eventually planting them in my big back yard with full southern exposure. However we do not know what variety they are, so is there an easy way of identifying them and knowing whether they are self-pollinating, i.e., whether I need to plant two of these trees?

A: All of the figs I have tested here in our climate do well with very few problems. It is just a matter of your preference in taste. Normally, the darker colored figs such as black mission or brown turkey have a stronger flavor. The yellow or white figs are milder in flavor. The biggest mistake when growing figs here in our climate is not watering them with enough water during each irrigation. They are oasis plants, not desert plants.

Nearly all figs are self-fertile so there’s no need to have more than one. There are so many different varieties of figs it would be very difficult to identify which fig it might be. However, if you send me a picture of the fresh fruit so that I can see outside fruit color and color inside the fruit (cut open) I might be able to narrow it down for you.

Also, let me know if it was purchased through a local nursery since they typically carry the more common varieties. This also helps narrow it down. Follow my blog and I will give you some step-by-step instructions on how to propagate figs and grapes as well in the near future.

Q: I have a view of the valley for a few months of the year when the leaves of many trees behind my property are gone. The partial view is still manageable the rest of the year except for a tree that is very, very full and you can see nothing beyond or through it. I know I can’t ask for that tree to be topped. But what would happen if I asked for some branches to be removed in the middle of the tree so that it wouldn’t be obvious to anyone? Before I go before a board and ask such a question, I would appreciate your views on doing this and what the consequences might be down the line.

A: If the tree is pruned using a method called drop-crotching by a certified arborist then you should have no problem with the tree and still maintain its beauty. However most “tree-trimmers” will not know this technique but certified arborists should.

The technique is the lowering of a tree’s height or removing portions of the canopy by removing entire limbs at the point where they originate inside the canopy. This technique preserves the trees silhouette, general shape and reduces suckering while still accomplishing a smaller canopy.

There are tree butchers out there who have no regard for trees but only concerned with the destruction they can accomplish with a chainsaw. Whether it is a certified arborist or a tree trimmer, if you’ve hired a good one, the removal of a portion of the tree’s canopy will result in a smaller tree but leave you wondering if it was pruned at all.

Q: Do I have a bug problem? There are spots in various areas of the lawn. I water enough.

A: So if you believe you water enough let’s go ahead and eliminate the possibility that you underwatering, overwatering and getting even water coverage over the entire lawn through a properly designed and installed irrigation system.

That system should have what is called head-to-head coverage (water from one sprinkler should be throwing water all the way to the neighboring sprinkler) and a pressure regulator should be on the system so that water pressure at the sprinklers is not excessive. This helps prevent misting due to excessive water pressure.

Brown spots from watering problems usually occur in the same spots year after years and do not “move around” in the lawn. These spots are usually either next to the irrigation heads, halfway between heads or along the edges of an irregularly shaped lawn.

So now that we have eliminated those problems since you water enough let’s move on to bugs. Bugs will usually include either insects or diseases. In tall fescue, the most commonly planted lawn grass for homeowners here in our valley, this is the time of year for disease problems. The most common lawn disease right now is summer patch and often accompanies our “summer monsoon” season.

The spots start out as brown patches about 8 to 12 inches in diameter and frequently shaped like a partial circle or horseshoe. As this disease advances these brown spots blend together, if there are enough of them, into a wiggly or “snake” pattern of brown, dead grass. If you look at the green grass in amongst the dead grass, the green grass will be in circles about six to eight inches in diameter.

Make sure you are watering a few hours before sunrise, giving the lawn a chance to dry out as the sun comes up. Mow at 2 to 2½ inches in height. You can apply a fungicide that includes summer patch disease on the label and follow label directions.

Bob Morris is an emeritus professor in horticulture with the University of Nevada and can be reached at Follow his blog at

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