My Shrub’s Dead, Right?January 18, 2011
Wondering how to tell if your plant is dead?
(original post from January 18, 2011)
There’s nothing like a defoliated evergreen in January to make our gardens look especially awful. Quite frequently evergreens are selected specifically because they add winter interest to the garden. So, when they decide to follow the lead of their deciduous cousins and go naked for the winter, our gardens become particularly unappealing. And, sadly, many a new gardener wonders what in the world they did wrong and how in the world they’ll afford to replace all those dead twiggy things throughout their beds.
I’m here to give you hope & ways to determine if your plant is actually alive and what to do when to reinvigorate it.
When we had an early November freeze in Seattle, client calls and emails began rolling in desperate for help understanding why their gardens were dying when we had selected plants that typically do just fine in really cold weather.
In many cases, I found myself reminding clients that some shrubs are semi-evergreen in our climate. Shrubs like Lonicera ‘Lemon Beauty’ and Abelia ‘Confetti’ will hold foliage and look fantastic through our milder winters, but when we get hit by an early cold snap or several successive freezes they’ll shed leaves fast, protecting their inner assets. When these guys lose their leaves, I don’t much worry.
But, when plants like Sarcococca and Nandina begin a big leaf drop mid-winter, I get a little more worried. As I mentioned last week, my own Sarcococca has defoliated quite a bit, but the plants are fine & smell lovely. My Cotoneaster lacteus is another story. Every leaf and every berry was severely burned in the cold; the birds got nadda to eat from it this winter, and I’m beginning to wonder what it’ll look like come spring bud break. Will it be an opportunity to try something new in its spot? My Nandina has taken a bit of a hit, dropping a few leaves but holding its skeleton-like petioles. My client’s description of her Nandina, on the other-hand, had me concerned.
Following our first freeze, I got a frantic email that all of her Nandina was dead. Sure, in a new planting I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two plants give up the ghost, but all of one genus plus a number of other plants? Yipes! We set up a date, and I dropped by to help her review her plants.
Yep, her Rosemary bit the dust. Not a huge surprise; it happens almost randomly every winter. Her Sarcococca looked better than mine & smelled great. Even her Daphne was barely leaf-burned while mine is fully defoliated. Her Abelia and Lonicera, too, had performed as expected — half-clothed in leaves. But, all of her Nandina domestica looked awful — not dead, but certainly without its lovely foliage, which is something we had planned to see all winter long. Yet, nearby, her Nandina ‘Gulf Stream’ had barely lost a leaf.
We began by looking at any patterns in the garden. The Nandina under the eaves (which means they require hand watering in winter) looked a bit defoliated. The ones nearest the driveway, surrounded by cold stone, asphalt and gravel, were the worst of the bunch. But, none were dead.
So, how did I figure this out?
First, I looked at the plant, which had lots of color to the stems. I tugged very gently on the stalks, which held fast in the moist, loose soil. Then, I scratched the stem, which revealed succulent, living cells white and oozing with moisture. It’s Alive!
My client breathed a heavy sigh of relief. All was not lost.
To test your shrubs: Try the steps above. Don’t yank on the stems hard to uproot the plant. A very gentle pull can help you determine if the plant is rooted in. Too, don’t scratch off a lot of bark. The living part of the plant is just under the bark layer; a tiny scratch can be very revealing. For very small-twigged shrubs, it can be difficult to tell what’s what. Try to find a larger stem near the base of these plants to help you decide if there’s life in them-thar shrubs.
Next steps: Continue to watch the plants. Winter is far from over. In early spring we will prune the defoliated Nandina plants with cuts alternating in height. With Nandina, we want to encourage new growth from the roots, but we also want to try to encourage a bit of growth from the taller stems for height. We won’t make our cuts until the chance of a last hard freeze have past. Cutting now may stimulate new growth, which is very susceptible to freeze damage. Sadly, this means she has to look at the naked twigs for a few more weeks.
The good news: Well, besides the fact that everything is still alive, her dwarf conifers, evergreen Carex, brilliant Sedums, landscape stones and glass, and more are providing interest, structure and even fragrance in her winter spaces.