Metro-East Living

Leaves dropping may not be all bad news for pin oak tree

Q: My boyfriend, Steven, is wondering why his pin oak tree is prematurely losing its leaves. It started last year. It seems the leaves are smaller than usual, and they started dropping from the bottom first. The tree is still producing plenty of acorns, but it kind of looks like it’s dying. What should we do?

Allison L., of Maryville

A: It sounds like your boyfriend feels like he’s up a tree at the moment, but the answer to his worries may very well lie beneath it, according to BND gardening guru Charles Giedeman.

“The big thing to look for is that while the leaves are still on the tree, are they bright green?” he said. “If they’re starting to turn yellow-green, it could be a nutrient deficiency.”

But before you gallop off to your gardening store for a ton of fertilizer, here’s what you want to do: Dig up a couple of soil samples from the tree’s drip line, which is the outermost part of a tree’s canopy from where rain drips onto the ground. (If this is unclear, just search for “drip line” on Google for a diagram.) Those samples should be taken from about 6 inches deep. Then take the samples to SGS Alvey Laboratory at 1511 E. Main St. in Belleville for an analysis. Here’s what to look for:

“He wants to to find out what the pH of the soil is and see if that needs to be modified,” Giedeman said. “If he has something like a limestone driveway, that could be changing the pH and the tree would not be able to pick up the nutrients that it needs.”

On a scale of 0-14, pin oaks love a pH (the measure of the acidity or basicity of a substance) measure of 5.5, he said.

“If it’s up above 6, he could go out and add sulfur this time of the year to drop it down,” Giedeman said. “But Alvey would be able to give him the analysis and tell him how much sulfur to use.”

If the soil analysis turns up a nutrient deficiency, he’ll likely need to fertilize — but do it next spring, certainly not now.

“A tree’s going to be going dormant now, so you don’t want to throw any, say, nitrogen on it, because that would try and stimulate it to keep growing. Then, when the weather really gets cold, you could lose the tree.”

Of course, all of this could indicate nothing at all, Giedeman said. Although he hasn’t seen your tree up close, it could simply be a reaction to the summer heat.

“Certain oak trees adjust to the hot conditions, but some of them will start dropping leaves. It wouldn’t be too much of a concern if some leaves fall off, but if they’d all fall off, that’s a major concern.”

And don’t let an overproduction of acorns fool you. Producing a lot of seeds can be like dying parents having kids as a last gasp just to keep their family line going.

“The acorn thing can be telling you it’s in pretty good shape,” he said. “But, on the other hand, producing a lot of acorns is showing that the tree is under stress. He would have to find out what the cause of that stress is because if it’s not healthy, a tree will put all of its energy into trying to form nuts or seeds so that the next generation of trees will come through.”

Trip addendum: In my story about my recent around-the-world trek, I did not include the travel company I booked with. But ever since, I have been asked so many times that I suppose I should mention it as a public service: It was TCS World Travel, of Seattle, Wash., named for founder T.C. Swartz.

Before I continue, let me stress that this was no press junket. I paid full fare as a private citizen, so I am in no way shilling for them. That said, let me say that if you can afford it, this is a company that should be among those at the top of your list if you’re considering such a trip.

One of my greatest concerns when I signed up was taking a trip with 80 other people. I mean, I usually go on journeys with half that many and there usually are two or three every time who are either notoriously late for activities or perpetually crabby. I figured 80 might be like herding cats.

Perhaps it was the clientele they attract, but this trip was darn near perfection (except for a brief downpour in Cambodia). Everything — and I mean everything — went off like clockwork. Their trip leaders could not have been more pleasant or helpful. When I had to ask for another room in Trujillo, Peru, because of noise, it was done in 10 minutes — and the hotel apologized because it would not be quite as nice as the suite I had given up. The service and comfort aboard the planes made seven-hour flights seem like short hops. (And we spent 69 hours in the air.)

Before we landed, visa forms were already filled out for us and we almost always enjoyed fast, private screening lines at airports. During the entire 23-day trip, I had only one other complaint — that we couldn’t spend another hour at the wonderful Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas, Australia. (See why at

Already, I’m considering TCS’s around-the-world northern trek in 2018, but you can sample their many other trips at

Today’s trivia

What’s the fastest flying creature on Earth?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: In early 1955, the U.S. Senate considered a joint resolution to make Gen. Douglas MacArthur “General of the Armies of the United States” (as opposed to the five-star General of the Army he already was). It was assumed by many that it would have come with a sixth star. The proposal, however, was shelved and a six-star rank has never been officially implemented. However, two men have been awarded the title of General of the Armies — John Pershing in 1919 and George Washington posthumously on March 15, 1978.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer