Winter Plant Health Care Guide: Seasonal Needle Drop

brown evergreen tree

Every year we get an increase of calls from concerned property owners who are alarmed to see that their recently planted evergreen trees are changing color and dropping a substantial number of needles.

This is a very common situation that we encounter in both our LandscapingPlant Health Care and Tree Care divisions. Fortunately, the prognosis is almost always positive and only on rare occasions does it require a Plant Health Care consultation or onsite visit.

Your concern is, of course, understandable and justified. Your landscaping project is a substantial investment in your property, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that your evergreens will remain, well, ever green. After all, it’s right there in the name.

What causes seasonal needle drop?

The most likely culprit here is the tree’s natural growth process. One of the “growing pains” of a tree includes seasonal third-year needle droppage. Being seasonal, the tree will continue to cycle off its oldest needles each year throughout its lifespan.

Younger trees – whether they were just planted or a few years old – are more susceptible to stress than an established ten-year-old tree of the same species. Accordingly, you’ll see newer evergreen trees experience a fall color change and drop more needles sooner than their older counterparts. Even in trees with leaves, a young Red Maple, for example, will change color and drop leaves earlier than an older one.

This phenomenon is further amplified because the needle drop is simply more noticeable in younger trees that are still being established.

They’re smaller. They’re at eye-level. They’re not as dense. They’re also new to your property, so you might be more attentive and sensitive to potential threats. Any change to a tree at this stage in its development is sure to draw attention.

Which trees are most affected by seasonal needle drop?

At CVTS-L, we often encounter it with White Pines, Firs, Spruces, Hinoki Cypresses, Leyland Cypresses and Green Giant Arborvitae. The Green Giants are especially noticeable when they’re younger.

When they’re older, they are denser and the droppage is harder to see because it happens closer to the trunk – when you look into the branches you only see a green wall.

We love Hinoki Cypresses, but because their branches aren’t as dense, their third-year needle loss is easier to see (it’s in the same family as a bonsai tree). Their needles become a bright bronze color, which is accentuated because of the visibility of the individual branches. We love to recommend the Hinoki, and it’s perfect for customers who want an open and airy natural landscape. However, for people who want complete control over the environment year-round, they might want to avoid this one. As landscape designers, our goal is to match the personalities of our clients with the growth habits of the trees.

When is needle droppage a serious problem that requires a professional consultation?

The first question we’ll ask when someone calls us about their evergreens losing their needles is going to be, “Are the browning and droppage occurring on the inside or outside of the tree?” Seasonal and third-year needle droppage primarily affects the needles closest to the trunk because those are the oldest needles.

You should be concerned if the browning and droppage are occurring on the outside of the branches or from the top down.

This could be a sign that your tree is in distress from a situation that has been ongoing for quite some time – possibly girdling root or a soil/nutrient problem.

These situations would require an onsite consultation with one of our Plant Health Care experts.

Trees are going into dormancy during this time of year, and there aren’t many serious threats. It is very uncommon to see trees dying in the early winter months that weren’t showing signs two months ago during the growing season when the tree was active and in growth mode.

Seasonal needle drop review

You’re right to be concerned and protective of the trees on your property – especially if they were recently planted (within the last three years or so).

The good news is that third-year and seasonal needle droppage are normal. Evergreen trees are equipped with this adaptation to survive the winter season, and you shouldn’t be alarmed.

It is likely more noticeable in your younger evergreen trees – particularly young White Pines, Hinoki Cypresses and Green Giant Arborvitae – because they lack the density and height of their older counterparts. Plus, if they are new to the property, those first couple of years can cause some anxiety as we wait for the trees to establish themselves and mature.

You should, however, be very concerned if your evergreen tree is experiencing color change or needle droppage from the top down or at the extremities of the branches.

A professional consultation might be needed to identify the cause because the problem has likely been ongoing for several months.

It is important to remember that trees are long-term investments in your property and they are living organisms, which means that they need to be planned for in terms of years rather than months or seasons – and that includes needle droppage.