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by Susan Clark
(Yakima, WA, USA)

We live in Yakima, Washington and replanted a young blue spruce three years ago. It has grown approximately 3 feet since. We noticed this year that it was growing pine cones. I was told that the tree is in distress when it grows cones. Is that true? And if it is in distress is there anything we can do to help it? Thank you for any help.

Producing cones simply indicates that it’s reached maturity – without knowing more about the age of the tree, it’s hard to know if it’s because of stress, which can also promote or trigger them to grow cones. It’s a survival tactic – if they feel that they aren’t strong enough to thrive in a certain place, some of their progeny may have a better chance.

Things that you can do to help: if it’s at all possible, cut the cones (or some of them) off so the tree can divert some of its energy back into it’s own growth.

Mulch heavily with bark mulch – avoid things like straw, hay or cedar bark, which won’t hold in the moisture and can also contribute to other issues like a fire hazard, and in the case of the cedar bark, this can actually hamper the growth of other trees.

Install some kind of drip irrigation so you can control the amount of moisture it’s getting, and supply it with enough if you get a drought situation.

Pest control is crucial; Picea are prone to Spruce Adelgid or aphids which can cause a lot of damage to the growing points before you notice, so if this is happening, apply dormant oil in the early spring before growth starts. During the growing season, you can safely spray with insecticidal soap – keep in mind that you may have to do this several times before you actually gain control. Avoid spraying any product in very hot temperatures.

Finally, when you planted this tree, is there any chance that it was root bound, in a pot? This can be a major problem with many trees; if you don’t cut through some of the larger roots and also spread them out a bit, they just continue to spiral around in a circle, choking themselves off.

They may survive for a while, but eventually, they will dwindle and die.

You have no idea how many times I’ve dug up trees and other plants that have died from some unknown and unsuspected reason, only to find the roots are completely plugged up, and they don’t stray out of that pot shaped zone.

You may want to take a sharp spade in the fall, and slice it down into the area close to the trunk of the tree in two or three places every year. This cuts off some of the roots, and they replace them with smaller and more vigorous ones, which is where they obtain their nutrients, from these fine feeder roots.

Hope that has given you some ideas of how to help your tree grow into a strong and healthy specimen.