It's ready to grow yet we presume it's dead
When will we learn to read the plants carefully in spring rather
than skim their stories and feed our pessimism? Every gardener goes
on spring walkabout with such a load of doubt that concern for
plants can turn into self fulfilling prophecy. So sure are we of a
terrible death toll that we don't notice proof of life as we yank
plants and send them to the compost.
Flex, scratch, slice, pinch
This spring, do a flex, scratch, slice or pinch test on
plants that worry you.
Bend a twig. See if it's pliable -- dead wood is
Scratch the twig. Look for moist green tissue under
the bark. Dead cambium is brown, gray or
Left: Our last scratch test, on frosted Japanese
What's Coming Up
Pinch a bud to assess its plumpness.
Or, if you've worn your fingers to the point that they
can't master fine motions or feel tiny objects for plumpness, slice
it in two and use your eyes. The innards of a live bud should be
green without blemish.
Above: This spruce lost most of its needles to some harsh
weather, or perhaps to deck cleaning chemicals. But its buds,
protected by layers of waxy cap, are raring to go.
Clip a twig to determine if it's built up a sufficient cushion
of stored starch in the cambium.
Right: We can see when it's cut through that there is a
slippery -- moist -- green layer under the bark of this privet
twig. Plenty of stored energy to fuel the spring leaf-out. Good
thing! It's an important hedge that had a bad time last year
because of construction all around it.
Below: There's an alarming amount of brown on this
falsecypress. We check the brown for moisture, flexibility and
color. Some of it is brittle and dry but some flexes easily and has
green tips. We clean it up, then wait and see.
Checking perennials a matter of buds
Look, too, for proof of life in herbaceous perennials. Most of
them die to the ground so proof lies in the buds and roots. Before
you declare it dead and pull it out:
Clear soil from the crown and look for pink, green or waxy tan
buds ready to grow. View them as the vegetables they are. If
they're of a firmness and color to match produce just placed in
your refrigerator's crisper drawer, assume they're alive and going
to grow. Do throw away what's limp, squishy or gray like a moldy
carrot or rotted cuke.
If buds aren't visible on a plant's crown, as can be the case on
slow starters like hardy Hibiscus and groundcover plumbago
(Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), probe the connection
between roots and crown. If roots are flexible and uniform in color
up their length and through the point of contact with the crown,
all is well.
Above: There's trouble in the hosta bed! The old gals on the
left aren't primed with buds.
Below: A look at the two crowns in cross section can show
you what your fingers might also feel -- soft spots of
(Although such a hosta might "come up dead" in spring we're
90% sure this is not winter damage but a nasty contagious fungal
infection callled Southern blight. We'll dig outo and burn these
hostas, plant a non-hosta back into that spot. If any of the
symptomatic hostas are precious we'll divide to an unaffected
portion no matter how small, and clean that with a weak bleach
solution before replanting it in a different bed.)
We never worry about whether a weed will survive harsh
times. Even as we yank it out we know that it will recover. Yet a
desirable plant in a good site can be as vigorous as a weed. This
honeysuckle is a good example. Sometimes used as a hedge, in this
garden it was unwanted, and was hacked back last year. The main
effect seems to have been to awaken its lowest dormant