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Retraining a Tree with Basal Shoots

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Hayley Kwasniewski
/ Categories: Denver Digs Trees

Do you think the top of your tree has died? Here are some signs that may be the case: 

  • Brittle Branches
  • No signs of buds or leaves
  • Breakage 
  • Discoloration

The picture on the right shows a tree that, sadly, did not survive after planting. Here are some possible causes of tree mortality:

  • Extreme changes in weather
  • Mechanical girdling
  • Extreme heat/drought
  • Improper watering

BUT, if the tree has basal shoots coming out from the bottom of the trunk, there may be hope for it yet! Retraining may be a good way to save the tree.

Before we get there, let's start at the beginning.

How to check for signs of life and what to do next

Trees store energy in their root systems when they go dormant in the winter months, but they can also rely on these stored carbohydrates to survive in times of heat stress. So, the first step is to check for signs of life. If the entire tree is dead, retraining it will, unfortunately, not fix the problem.

 1. Check the branches

  • If they are flexible and have supple green tissue, the tree may bounce back next year.*

2. Check for new growth

  • If your tree has new shoots growing from the base of the tree, but no other leaves, let those new branches grow for now. They will help the tree photosynthesize and store more valuable energy in the roots.* 

3. Now the hard part: patience 

  • Continue monitoring the soil moisture and water when dry throughout all four seasons.
  • If the tree sets buds and leaves, it is on the way to a healthy season of growth! You can prune the basal shoots back to the ground.
  • Contact The Park People if you need more guidance along the way - we are happy to help! 

*If your tree's branches are very brittle and there are no shoots from the base, unfortunately it is probably dead. You can remove it and apply for a replacement through Denver Digs Trees 2023.

Want to attempt retraining?

Hopefully you've figured out whether or not your tree is dead, and if there is a chance it can make it with some help. If the top of the tree is dead but there are basal shoots at the bottom, you may be able to retrain the tree and increase its chances of survival. This process is meant to establish a new leader, or a new top, of a young, newly planted tree. Please note that this method is not guarunteed, but may be worth a try! Here are some instructions:

  • If the top of the tree does not have any buds or leaves, and the branches have become brittle, but it does have leafy shoots growing from the base of the tree, you can cut the original trunk to the ground. Leave the shoots until next spring before starting the process of retraining a leader.
  • In early spring, select two of the strongest, most upright shoots, and cut the rest back as far to the ground as you can. You can use a balanced fertilizer or top dress with compost early in the season and monitor the growth.
  • By May, select the strongest, most upright shoot to become the new main trunk. Prune all other shoots including the orginal stump all the way to the ground. You may need to continue pruning off new young shoots and stake the trunk being retrained to encourage upright growth. Once you have a new trunk selected and growing, be sure to remove as much of the original stump as possible to avoid included bark. 
  • This process could take a few seasons to produce good results, but you can think of it as a science experiment!

 Below are some illustrations on what the process may look like and what to expect: 

As always, here is our 4-season printable tree care guide to pin to your fridge or corkboard. For easy online reference, bookmark our Tree Care Page.

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