QUESTION: We planted a cottonwood tree three years ago. The first spring it was very nice (about 15-20 ft) although had aphid galls on the leaf. The next spring we trimmed about 4 small bottom limbs about a quarter size without putting tree wound. The leaves came out but not as thick and this time the aphid galls were in the stems of the leaves. About mid summer it started loosing all the leaves. We had been in a drought but I tried to water often. This spring the tree leaves came on on top half of the tree but the bottom limbs appear dead. The top is still green with sparse leaves but the base of the tree at root area is very movable and not firm to the ground. Any hope?
ANSWER: there is always hope as long as there are still green foliage. I would go ahead and fertilize the tree with 10-10-10 fertilizer at the rat of 1 lb per inch of trunk diameter scattered around the tree and watered in good. If you can not get water to it then wait until a rain event and fertilize just before the rain. This will increase the overall health of the tree. Make sure you do not use a product called Weed and Feed on the lawn near the tree. This product contains a herbicide that will kill trees. The proper method of watering a tree is to apply 1 inch of water about three times a week during droughts. Place a pan under the tree and turn the sprinkler on and when the pan has 1 inch of water in it stop. This will give the tree roots water.
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QUESTION: What should we do about the unsteadiness in the root area? I literally can move the tree trunk back and forth. Thanks, I will rate your answers!
I am sorry I over looked that part. Not knowing how the tree was planted and the type soil I will give a general answer based on one possibility. I am going to assume the soil is clay and the hole that the tree was planted in was about the size of the root ball. In this case when the soil is heavy clay when a hole os dug for a tree the sizes of the hole a smooth and this forms a "pot" in the ground and will hold water. The hole being small and pot like the roods can not grow out side the "pot" and this not growing outward will causes the tree to be unsteady since there are not enough roots to hold the tree up. Also the pot will hold water and could drown the roots causing the foliage to become sparse. Normally a hole should be 3 times the width of the root ball and as deep and filed with good top soil or potting soil. And in heavy clay soil hole would need to be poked into the side and bottom of the hole to allow water drainage. This will allow the roots to grow outward and better hold the tree as it grows taller.
Now IF this is the case here you might try loosening some of the soil around the tree. If the tree can be moved one way but not another then loosen the soil on the side that seems to be able to move. Not all the way around the tree. This with the fertilizer may encourage the roots growth in all directions.
IF none of this is true Clay soil and bad planting then there is something else going on and the roots are dying. In this case I would try the fertilizer and see if the tree leafs out next spring. Without seeing the tree that is about all I can recommend. You might try also calling the State Forestry agency and ask one of their Foresters to come out and take a look. Their number should be in the local phone book.