Gardening in Langley: Root rot masquerades as drought

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  • Sep. 10, 2015 12:00 a.m.

Dear Anne,

I am concerned about the tall cedar tree at the back of our property which has been slowly dying for the past four years. It has several brown brown branches and seems to be infecting the nearby pine tree. Is it possible for one type of conifer to infect another?

Carol, New Westminster

One of the major diseases causing cedar dieback is phytophthora root rot, and yes, it can affect pines. Cedar branches do go brown from phytophthora and this is slowly progressive as more roots decay.

Once this disease develops, I have never heard of it being cured.

Phytophthora dieback looks like symptoms of drought because the decaying roots are unable to carry adequate water up the tree. That’s why cedars (and other infected trees) gradually go brown.

Since we’ve had long summer droughts for several years now (with two of the most severe being this year and last year) it might be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of your trees brown branches unless there are also reddish-brown patches on the bark.

In later stages of phytophthera there may be reddish-brown stains on the wood under the bark.

Although this disease causes the drying out of the upper tree, it actually originates from water movement in the soil which carries the infection from an infected tree to the roots of healthy ones. Our BC winters which in the past have featured heavy rains invite phytophthora when infected trees are nearby.

I’m sure we’ve all seen lines of cedar hedging with several brown trees close together while others are still green. This is generally phytophthora at work.

Root stability can be an issue as the disease progresses.

Dear Anne,

I have fig trees and small grape vines about two feet tall. I put them in-ground two months ago. Do they need any protection from cold for this coming winter? How do I do that?

Frank, Langley

The grapes need no protection for winter.

But the fig trees need protection of a wall, ideally a south or west wall. Otherwise a hard winter will kill them down to ground.

While they’re very small, you could surround them in winter with fallen leaves or straw held in place by a wire surround.

So far the only situation where fig trees have been hardy in the ground outside in Metro Vancouver is on a south or west slope exposed to full sun.

If the figs are by a house wall, they need to be pruned to fit the space available. The general idea is to open up the fig so that sunlight and air can penetrate and the fruit will ripen before cold weather begins. The first pruning of the year for shape can be done in early spring.

Figs need a second pruning in June which cuts all new shoots to four to six leaves depending on space. The side shoots which develop will bear the first crop of figs in the summer of the following year.

In our climate, the first crop of figs is usually the only one that has time to ripen.


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