Issue: October 18, 2008

Fat Albert spruce problems


My neighbor Judy planted an expensive "Fat Albert" Spruce last spring. The lower branches were dying and so she cut them off. Since I know you, I thought I would ask your advice. Judy wants to know what she is doing wrong. Should she fertilize water more, or what? Judy sure does not want to lose the tree.


For readers not familiar with this cultivar of spruce, it is a rather short and broad cultivar of the familiar Colorado spruce.

The loss of needles on the lower branches could be related to transplant shock. Until the tree establishes its roots in the new location, it may not be able to collect enough water to support all the needles. Fertilization should be minimal until the roots are well established, proper watering is much more important.

Location could be responsible for the problem you have described. If the tree is in a location where it gets reflected heat (south or west side of a structure) it may be the heat and excessive drying causing the symptoms. Since it is new, it has not yet established a good root system. It will suffer even in fairly benign locations until the roots are well established. Spruce trees prefer to grow in an elevation a few thousand feet higher than Albuquerque, so they are always somewhat stressed here. Water is the first thing to recommend, but not in excess. The soil should not dry completely between irrigations. As the root system establishes the irrigation should move to the drip line and outward, but for now, irrigate at the base of the tree. Next year begin moving the irrigation outward until the tree is no longer watered under the branches, only at the ends of the branches and outward (that should be occurring by about the third year). During the winter, the roots should not be allowed to dry. If there is a long period without water, these trees should be watered about once a month. A good layer of organic mulch will help conserve moisture, protect the roots, and simulate the natural forest environment.

Another consideration is that there were spider mites that attacked the needles. They prefer shady locations (such as found on lower branches) and can suck the life from the affected needles. They are easy to recognize because their "webbing" traps dust so the needles look like they are covered with lint when the mites are active (not like spider webs that stretch between branches). They are also easy to manage by just washing them down with a strong stream of water a few times a week when they are observed. This removes many of them from the needles and reduces the damage and it washes away their protective webbing and exposes them to the dry air and to predators who help remedy the problem.

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


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