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This ornamental conifer, which looks like some sort of blue spruce, has lived in this spot since at least spring of 2014, when it looked like this:

Dwarf conifer 2014

I live in SE Pennsylvania, and it has appeared healthy until a few weeks ago, when I noticed a majority of its needles had died. We haven't had extraordinary weather recently. Is the plant itself dying? Is any care indicated?

Dwarf conifer 2017

(The only thing that has changed in its environment since it was originally planted is the addition of lamb's ear to the bed last year, which the picture shows is growing a few feet away.)

Per @stormy's request: There has been no fertilization since a dusting of Preen in the Spring. I pulled soil back from the trunk until I was scraping dense clay and took these two photos: Trunk view 1Trunk view 2

Here is a macro photo of a cut stem and dead needles: Dead needles and dying stem

Here is a close-up of heavy lichen coverage on the branches, although I think that had developed that while the tree was still healthy: Lichen on dying branches

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This is the Bird's Nest Blue Spruce. I think. Picea abies 'nidiformus'...grins...If this went down that quickly, I'd look at the last fertilization (do you have an outside maintenance company), Blue Spruce Aphid or adelgid and I would also look at the base of the trunk where it goes into the soil. If there is any trunk at all under the soil and mulch we need to see how far the damage of constant moisture has gone.

Please look at that trunk. Pull the soil and debris away from the base until you are able to see the top of the root ball. Leave it that way. Take a picture of the bottom of the trunk. Are you able to get a magnifying glass to look closely at the blackened stems and leaves (indicative of insect 'honey dew'). If you could take a picture that would be fantastic.

Added notes: The cambium is the LIVE part of the trunk. It contains the plumbing for the entire plant within an 1/8 inch or less beneath the bark. The rest is not alive nor in use. Lots of plants have hollow centers because of this. If you scrape the bark using your finger nail of any plant you will see a bright green. That is the vascular system of the plant. There is Phloem and Xylem...one is for uptake of water and chemistry to the leaves for photosynthesis and the other is to take carbohydrates/food the plant MAKES via photosynthesis down to the roots for use and then storage.

I'll try to find a picture or a way to illustrate how to slice and dice. I do not see sign of insect damage (blackened honeydew). I am dying to draw this for you...your plant is dead. Just have to say. But to know why is critical so this doesn't happen again. I think it has everything to do with the vascular system at this point.

Check your foundation however. Get the soil off of the brick and down by 4". Check for an asphalt emulsion coating on your foundation. Find a way to know if you've got a foundation drainage system. When was this work accomplished? Hiring a private building inspector before you purchase is best but this plant is worth its weight in gold if it has helped you to investigate your home's foundation. You have rights and a large window right now. Hope your foundation is sound. Soil on your brick is not sound...

  • Just added more photos to the original post per your request. Since you mention moisture: This bed does have poor drainage. The soil is dense clay and shale. I've lost other moisture-sensitive plants, and in recent years have taken to digging much deeper holes to compensate. However, I'd be confused if this plant is suddenly succumbing to excess moisture given that it has been growing there for at least 3 years, and past years have been far wetter than this one. – feetwet Oct 22 '17 at 17:19
  • My strongest focus now is the wet bark. Could you take a knife and slice vertically a thin line very shallow and take a picture? If the cambium is damaged all the way around the circumference, the plumbing is completely compromised. Just a bit of plumbing left in that circumference is enough for a plant to survive. Once that is gone the plant dies quickly. Not at all positive on this yet, okay? Could you look at the white paper beneath the samples to see any life at all? Use a good magnifying glass! This plant if it were in a decline would be easy prey for insects last year. – stormy Oct 23 '17 at 0:16
  • The more I look at your pictures the more I lean toward girdling by soil bacteria with continuous moisture on the bark. You can see where the plant is trying to change the bark into root. Looking at the trunk, the narrowest part of that trunk is right at the part buried too deeply. Please slice that vertical line straight up and down, leave the bark if you are able at the bottom of the slice. Start thin and get slightly thicker...like peeling an apple? Want to see the profile of these slices. I really think so far that this is girdling by being buried too deeply. No sign of insects? – stormy Oct 23 '17 at 0:25
  • If you look at your brick siding, you've got another problem possibly a bit more important. See the wet brick? Brick absorbs moisture. Does it freeze where you live? Then that wet brick will freeze and thaw and break and disintegrate. The soil should be no closer than 4" from the bottom of your siding. Your foundation is not brick and that is the reason. Your brick is the 'siding'...soil 4" below brick. Let me know. Hope that is helpful! – stormy Oct 23 '17 at 0:30
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    No not drainage issues! Buried too deeply issues. Bark of woody perennials HAS to stay out of the soil, mulch, weeds...that bark was under the soil. That cambium beneath that inch ring of compromised bark if damaged is more than sufficient to kill that little tree. The same amount of damage, being buried too deeply on a 50' tree will do the same thing...girdle and kill. Nothing to do with root rot (until we dig down and look at roots)...what I am seeing is damaged vascular system to your entire plant because the trunk was buried an inch too deep. – stormy Oct 24 '17 at 0:12
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A big mistake many people make when planting trees and shrubs is to either plant them too deeply or mulch them too incorrectly. The fact that you had to scrape soil away from the trunk to get a photo of the trunk trying to put out roots indicates that the plant was planted too deep or mulched wrong; my guess is that it was planted too low or sank after planting because the hole was too deep (the loose soil at the bottom of a deep hole will compact, and a tree or shrub will then settle, resulting in a buried trunk). It can take 3-5 years for a woody plant to die because of depth issues.

To prevent this from happening again:

  1. Remember this axiom: "Right plant, right place." Plant only trees and shrubs appropriate to your soil and drainage. Since this is a poorly drained area, you should consider shrubs like clethra and itea (neither are evergreen, though).

  2. When you dig the hole, only go to the depth of the root ball. If possible, make the hole twice the width. NEVER dig a hole deeper than that.

  3. Mulch the plant properly, like a shallow bowl, with more mulch at the dripline than under the shrub. The mulch should NEVER touch the trunk. If your mulch looks like a little volcano, you've mulched it wrong

  4. Keep in mind that a hole dug into a heavy clay soil and filled with "good dirt" is just an in-ground flower pot; rain will quickly percolate through the soil and come to a screeching halt when it hits the clay. It will then back up into the hole and potentially drown the plant.

For reference, I have a horticulture degree and spent seven years in the trade. You could also read anything by Michael Dirr. He's quite technical but has a very engaging and readable writing style.

  • I'm trying to figure out how to apply the four rules in this situation: The soil is dense clay. If I don't dig, loosen, and amend the hole several feet down then the situation is exactly as you describe in #4: any plant susceptible to drowning will drown. So if I take all four points at face value, then In this area I should find plants that can survive in an "in-ground flower pot" in SE PA. Are there any deer resistant ornamental evergreens that have that characteristic? – feetwet Oct 25 '17 at 3:25
  • I used to live in deer country in Wisconsin - I don't think there are any true deer resistant evergreens :) One winter, I watched a buck stand on its hind legs to chew up a native juniper, and I saw a yard where deer had eaten yews, three types of spruce, and a bristlecone pine. So, let's not talk conifers - Inkberry (Ilex glabra) will take poor drainage. It's a Zone 6, though, but is considered deer resistant. The species is about 5- 8' tall and wide, though you could probably find shorter cultivars. – Jurp Oct 25 '17 at 3:51
  • Thank you: I'll start with Inkberry and research other options for "poor drainage." And yes, when they get hungry enough it appears that nothing is deer-proof. But there are definitely wide degrees of deer resistance among evergreens and even conifers. For plants next to my house things tend to survive as long as they aren't deer "candy" :D – feetwet Oct 25 '17 at 15:30
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    Since Inkberry can handle poor drainage, I would not remove the clay. I've gardened in clay so bad you could pot with it (and we did), and had the best luck simply by digging the clay, breaking the clumps as much as possible, mixing in compost, and then planting (and mulching with wood chips). The problem with replacing the soil in the hole (besides creating a flowerpot) is that the shrub's roots don't want to leave all that great soil for the clay next door. Some shrubs' roots will just circle the hole, stunting their growth. – Jurp Oct 25 '17 at 22:47

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