Why Inner Conifer Needles Turn Brown or Yellow

It's fall and we expect our maples, oaks, dogwoods, and hickories to lose their leaves. That's called deciduous. You see the woody part of the plant all winter, but the leaves drop in fall, leaving a somewhat stark landscape in our gardens. It's our signal that the gardening world is going dormant and so can we. (Click here for an article I wrote for the Mountain Xpress on the mysteries of dormancy, if you care to read.) 

Cue our evergreens that give us visual pleasure during winter. As the garden coach, one comment I often hear is, "I want something green to look at in winter."  Blue spruces, white pines, hinoki false cypress and arborvitaes give us bones in the garden, but they also add winter interest to a barren space.

But then this happens: 

Japanese White Pine near pond at BB Barns Garden Center. One of my favorite conifers and I've gotten used to this yearly shedding, and even find it attractive. Look for it at the store so you'll get an idea of what this article is referring to.

'DeGroots Spire' arborvitae. Typically their shedding is close to the leader so you must pull back some of the branches to see the yellowing leaves. If the yellowing/browning drives you nuts, this may be the evergreen for you.

It's okay. Don't panic. Every fall our evergreens shed. They shed older needles generally starting late summer. As the evergreen grows, the inner needles (the oldest ones) are shaded and they photosynthesis less effectively and will eventually shed. This is normal. Check out this 'DeGroots Spire' arborvitae. That's a picture from the store. We're selling that plant. Try convincing a customer that plant is okay. But it is. I promise.

Most of the shedding is interior to the plant, but sometimes you'll see it on the outer branches. Not to worry, this isn't the evergreen apocalypse happening in your yard. 

Think of it this way. The plant must shed because the weight of all those needles isn't good. When winter snow or ice comes it allows the evergreen to hold up under that weight. (It's the reverse of what we do, adding weight in winter and shedding it spring :). 

This shedding varies by species and can be worse when conditions are harsh (this summer and fall's drought). This drought isn't helping any of our plants, but it may accelerate the shedding with some evergreens. My thunderhead pine looks near naked, and a customer sent us this picture of her hinoki false cypress, planted a year ago. It will recover, but it's going to look puny for a bit. Haaalp. 

Hinoki false cypress shedding in fall after a summer of very harsh conditions. This plant is stressed but hopefully will recover next spring. 

Browning and yellowing at the tip of the plant can happen anytime of the year and are caused by drought, and pests or diseases. Click on these links for pictures of diplodia tip blight (in pines) and phomosis (in junipers and spruces). This is not good and you should call an extension agent, but if the browning is happening now, is mostly to the interior of the plant, however sad that might look, it's okay. This is normal fall shedding for evergreens.

White pine shedding in fall. I see this pine on my morning walks with Aggie (short for Agapanthus) my dog. Proof that sometimes the shedding is actually pretty. I posted this to Instagram and got a lot of likes!

AAP, Cinthia

Cinthia Milner is the garden coach, blog writer and outside sales person for BB Barns Garden Center. 

BB Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina and Tennessee.