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Alberta Spruce - Overwater?

Q: I purchased 2 Dwarf Alberta Spruce in late November & planted them in ceramic pots, both placed on my front porch on either side of my front door.

About a month ago, I realized that I had not watered them in about a month and proceeded to water each of them with a gallon of water (they are approx. 2-2 1/2 ft. tall in 14" planters). I noticed within 2 wks., the needles began to brown in certain areas and it has gotten progressively worse. About a fourth of each plant is brown.

I haven't watered them again until today (half gallon of water for each plant), b/c I was afraid that I overwatered the last time (which may have caused the "browning" of the needles). I live within 20 miles of Washington, DC in the Maryland suburbs.....we usually never have harsh winters, but this past one was the worst in several years.

Could this have caused the damage, but it's strange that the "browning" didn't occur until after I watered them. Do you have any ideas of what is causing this and how I should proceed? Please help!

A: I don't think your watering the plants had anything to do with their turning brown afterward. I think the watering was too late, that the roots were already dried out, and the plants would have browned up regardless.

Plants growing in above-ground containers are much more vulnerable to temperature extremes. In the winter, the entire root zone of the plant can freeze since the cold can permeate from all directions, not just downward from the top as is the case of a plant that is in the ground. If the roots freeze totally, that's it, game over.

However, the fact that the plant has been killed may not show up for a while. Since you watered and the plant turned brown afterward, you made the natural connection that the two events had something to do with each other when they probably really didn't.

I would carefully poke around in the soil to find roots and then do the "thumbnail test." Gently scratch off just a bit of the root covering to see if there's some moist-looking tissue beneath (check several areas to try to get an overall view).

If there is, water once a week with about 1 gallon (check the soil moisture before watering to be sure it's needed), try to protect the sides of the pots from the cold, and wait to see if any new growth emerges this spring.

I would also "thumbnail test" the twigs, again looking for moist-looking tissue just beneath the bark. You may have moist tissue in the crown but none in the roots, or vice versa, which may still mean the end of the plant. If you find no moist tissue above or below ground, you may be replacing the plants for sure this spring.

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Tom Mugridge

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