Garden Dilemmas, Delights & Discoveries, Ask Mary Stone, New Jersey Garden blog

Needle Cast on Ellie’s Memorial Tree

zoom in on a blue spruce with brown needles caused by needle cast

Hello fellow readers, Ellie’s memorial tree is showing signs of severe decline. About a month ago, I noticed the tippy-top of her Baby Blue Eyes Spruce badly wilted. A colleague confirmed its suffering from the dreaded Needle Cast. Still, I choose to believe there is Hope.

small baby blue eyes blue spruce with needle cast symptoms of browned and drooping treetop and side needles.

Needle Cast-Ellie’s Memorial Tree

We’ve chatted before about the devastating fungal diseases of Needle Cast or Canker Disease, blue spruce being the most susceptible (link to the column below). Both show similar symptoms of needle dieback, often from the bottom up, so seeing Ellie’s treetop first drooping before turning brown confused me.

Then comes a sign of hope. 

As I stared out the window in sadness, a cardinal, red as can be, jumped onto the edge of the bay window and stared at me. Only for a fleeting moment before flying to the viburnum overlooking Ellie’s tree. They say when you see a red cardinal; it’s a sign from your dearly departed—a symbol of hope and comfort. Maybe Ellie’s tree will recover just fine.

I’ll admit I considered the Baby Blue spruce might have had the very beginnings of Needle Cast or Canker Disease when we chose it as our Christmas Tree. Two lower branches had a brownish cast. But it could be from being dug and potted up for sale. And if it’s a fungal dilemma, it’s early in the progression, I justified.

Besides, it’s a beautiful tree, and one of the few live trees left so close to Christmas. So I took the risk thinking the disease is manageable and sprayed Baby Blue with Neem Oil before she came inside. Then, each week during the spring as a preventative.

The new growth was a glorious intense blue…
a red male cardinal tucked behind leaves in a viburnum shrub

Cardinals are a symbol of hope and comfort.

And an ambitious new top crown shot up as if to say, “My roots are free. I’m going to grow into a magnificent tree.” Baby Blue Eyes (Picea Pungens) is slow-growing to fifteen to thirty feet tall and fifteen feet wide.

A further decline occurred after the cardinal’s visit, likely due to excessive drought, high humidity, and heat —a trifecta for fungal disease. I tested the soil religiously with a moisture meter and irrigated carefully to avoid wetting the foliage.

Plus, I applied Stress-X by North Country Organics. Stress-X is a seaweed extract that delivers natural growth hormones that help plants overcome stress, resist disease and certain insect pests while helping to encourage growth. But the tree became sicker.

a small baby blue eyes blue spruce with needle cast symptoms of browned and drooping treetop and side needles.

Sadly, Ellie’s Memorial Tree has Needle Cast.

Needle Cast is difficult to manage.

I sent photos to an associate arborist and friend, Dave Dubee. Sadly, he reports its needle cast; I think the more difficult of the two spruce diseases. He said there’s nothing to do this time of the season other than applying Holly Tone—an organic fertilizer for acid-loving trees and shrubs. And so, I did just that and will again in the fall.

Come spring, Dave suggested I treat it with a fungicide. While Neem oil has antifungal attributes, I’ll likely need the big guns. A fungicide with chlorothalonil, copper hydroxide or mancozeb will guard the new needles against becoming infected. I’ll apply one application in the spring as the new candles (buds) are half their mature size, then a second time three to four weeks later.

The hardest part…

The hardest part of watching the tree struggle is it makes me think of the last weeks with our dear girl. It’s coming up on a year since we said goodbye to Miss Ellie, and Jolee will be about a year old at the same time.a white dog with black markings and her shadow next to a woman's shadow on the road

Perhaps I’ve shared I often start each column by dictating while walking as if I were talking with you, which I am doing as we speak, considering how to close our chat. I look up and notice Jolee and my shadow walking side-by-side like the shadows I relished of Ellie and me for eleven years. How grateful I am for love growing in my heart—knowing that Ellie’s love remains there too.

There’s a lesson in this story. In life, there are rhythms and cycles, just as in nature. And there are hardships and losses we cannot fix. Many things, maybe even most things, are not in our control. But we do the best we can with what we know and have to work with. And, we can pray.

Garden Dilemmas? (and your favorite Podcast App.)


a black and white photo of a golden retriever named Miss Ellie Mae with a magical rainbow shining on her paw.

Notice the magical rainbow on Ellie’s paw  :^)
There is indeed hope.

We placed Ellie’s memorial tree in a perfect spot in the view from every front room, including the screen porch where a large portrait of our dear girl is now. I adore the photos I took at the “Top of the World” (Big Pocono State Park atop Camelback Ski Mountain).

A rainbow magically touched Ellie’s paw when snagging a photo of her portrait to include in this post.

a white dog with a black face and spots named Jolee sitting beside a wooden plaque with white lettering

Our new rescue Jolee arrived in January 2021, gifting us with a piece of her heart.

A friend and colleague passed along a plaque with a sentiment written by an anonymous author. It says.

“It came to me that every time I lose a dog, they take a piece of my heart with them,

And every new dog that comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart.

If at live long enough, all the components of my heart will be a dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.”

It’s All About Love. 

Link to Spruce Disease Dilemmas and the story of Ellie’s Living Christmas Tree

More about Stress-X and Holly-Tone


Mary Stone, owner of Stone Associates Landscape Design & Consulting. As a Landscape Designer, I am grateful for the joy of helping others beautify their surroundings which often leads to sharing encouragement and life experiences. These relationships inspired my weekly column published in THE PRESS, 'Garden Dilemmas? Ask Mary', began in 2012. I dream of growing the evolving community of readers into an interactive forum to share encouragement and support in Garden and Personal Recoveries - seeking nature’s inspirations, stimulating growth, weeding undesirables, embracing the unexpected. Thank you for visiting! Mary

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