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Anchorage spruce trees are dying. We need to talk about what happens next.

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: August 30
  • Published August 29

A spruce bark beetle-killed tree on the Anchorage hillside. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

I am getting crushed by emails asking what to plant once beetle-killed spruce trees are removed. Impacted readers are devastated, many emotionally (and well they should be), by the loss of so many large trees.

I get it. We have had one heck of an unusual summer. Unusual? That is summary-talk for birch leaves withering, massive lilac leaf roller attacks, aphid invasions and leaf miners where there are no aphids. Then there are the record leaping (and breaking) temperatures.

Oh yeah, add an unimaginable lack of rain in August instead of the normal annual deluge. Note too, we did not receive much in July.

And there are reddening spruce needles throughout the area, the likes of which we never thought we would see. It is one thing to see acres of dead spruce along the highway, but in the middle of town?

You all know know what has to happen. First, get moisture into the ground around plants, especially trees and shrubs. Keep the mower high and consider skipping mowing altogether. You have an excuse.

As for the dead (and soon to be dead) spruce? We MUST have community-wide discussions about this. There is little question the big, majestic monarchs that have become the foundation of all else we do in our yards and gardens are under attack and many (most?) will not make it to next year or the year after.

The discussion needs to center around two things: how to get rid of the dead trees and what happens next. Sure, many can afford a few or more thousand bucks to cut theirs down, but what of those who cannot?

And do we want to let individual homeowners dispose of dead trees any way they can, or do we want to organize a community response? We can’t all burn them in our backyards; we will be (again) inundated by smoke, and we shouldn’t be burning anything now, anyhow.

At some point even commercial tree removers will need help with disposal. What are we going to do with all those chips?

A spruce bark beetle-killed tree. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Last time we had a massive beetle kill, it happened on the Hillside and special kiln trucks were brought in using some sort of EPA or other agency grant. The wood could be pyrolized into charcoal (biochar) at very high temperatures, whole trunks at a time.

It’s time for some municipality calls to the feds. This is what government is for, helping in a crisis, and this is a crisis. We need some help ASAP, Don, Lisa and Dan.

And, every bit as important, we need to talk as friends regarding replacements. As someone said, biology has no political party and we are talking about the future appearance of where we live. In Anchorage, there’s a very good likelihood of losing all of our spruce trees except the very young. Turnagain without those stellar trees! There is going to be a lot more daylight hitting yards and a lot more need for screening shrubbery and trees to block now-visible neighbors’ views. What should be used for replacement plantings, if anything?

Not mountain ashes. Not cherries. The birds love and spread these, which we don’t want. Maybe apple trees? They don’t spread. It is warm enough now to grow fantastic apples here, but do they belong? Do they support the biome, which is already stressed?

Should we let nature work her own palate without interfering? Is it even our right to replant these trees? Should we let nature do what she does using young spruce to replace the old ones? Birch trees will move in on their own. Nature knows what to do if we can only stay out of the way.

Birch, quaking aspen, white spruce, Sitka spruce, native trees. These are my suggestions. Even hemlock in some areas. (I am guessing they don’t grow much in the Anchorage Bowl because you have to bring some soil from the transplant area to provide the mycorrhizal fungi.)

Whatever happens, it is — up to a certain point — our decision, and with global warming and the knowledge of mycorrhizal inoculations, there are lots of things to choose from: maples and oaks if we really want.

So what to plant? You are safest with native trees, and these are the only trees I would plant and would allow as replacements if it were left up to me. If we bring in non-natives, we are only going to be asking for trouble, in my humble opinion.

So, I say only indigenous plant material should be used. However, this is exactly why we need to have community discussions. You sure don’t want a cranky, arthritic, guilt-ridden (for past advice that was non-organic), moralistic, organic garden columnist making decisions that determine what Southcentral communities will look like for the next 100 years. Let’s talk.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar for Aug. 28

Edible berry workshop: Do not miss the wonderful Will Criner, the Alaska Botanical Garden’s horticulturist, when he leads a workshop on edible berries. Learn to identify the safe and not safe. Taste a variety of berries from in/around the ABG gardens. Dress for the weather. 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3, Alaska Botanical Garden.

Harvest Days: There will be a garlic sale (ABG has an extensive collection of garlics that will only be sold at the festival), games and classes on all sorts of things, from hypertufa to mushroom growing. 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12. $5-$7 (children 6 and younger get in free). Alaska Botanical Garden (alaskabg.org)

Generally: Water. Water again and then water some more. Harvest. Enjoy

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