How to Tell If Trees, Shrubs, and Perennials Are Dead or Slow – InForum

How to Tell If Trees, Shrubs, and Perennials Are Dead or Slow – InForum

Do you know the easiest way to prevent a dog from digging in your garden? Take his shovel.

Dog digging is not the only cause of plant problems. Winter can be hard on plants, too. And of course there are rabbits.

How do you know if perennial flowers, trees, or brown patches of grass have died, or are slow growing, especially when spring is slow? Let’s wander into the courtyard to investigate.

  • Patience is key. Some species start growing early while the soil is still cool, such as bleeding heart and peonies. Other perennials are always slow to emerge, such as hostas.
  • Older perennials with larger root systems usually start growing in the spring before new plantings of the same type last year. Younger plants are often slower to emerge than established plants.
  • Plants in warm, protected microclimates grow faster, such as those planted on the sunny south side of a house’s foundation.
  • If perennials are underdeveloped, check for life by gently brushing the soil near the crown of the plant, the area near the soil level where new shoots emerge. Look for swollen buds that will appear soon, which may be white, pink or green. If no buds are visible, pinch the crown tissue. If it is squishy and feels rotten, the plant is likely dead. If the crown is fixed, there is still hope.
  • Many perennials may appear lifeless but are simply slow to emerge. If the crown appears solid, some species may take until June to emerge.

Buds emerging at ground level show that this little peony has survived the winter well.
Alyssa Golzer/Forum

  • The speed of spring growth varies greatly depending on the species. Many spirea plants are slow to leaf, while forsythia plants bloom early, even before the foliage forms.
  • If you are in doubt about the condition of the shrub, perform the “thumbnail test” by scratching the branches. Live branches have a thin green layer, the cambium, between the gray or brown outer bark and the white inner xylem. If the green layer is absent or brown, the twig or branch is likely dead. Live branches are more flexible, while dead branches are brittle.
  • If the shrub is suspected to be dead, wait to see if growth originates from the base. Although the upper branches may have been injured in the winter, many shrubs will grow back well from near ground level, after which portions of dead branches can be pruned away.
  • If rabbits chew through the outer bark and expose the inner white wood, the above parts will likely die if the infestation surrounds the branch. Prune to a point below the hare’s infestation, or for good rejuvenation, prune all branches to six inches above ground level; most deciduous shrubs will grow well from the base.
  • Both evergreen trees and shrubs are susceptible to winter burn. Sometimes the foliage is brown and brittle, but the branches remain alive and ready to sprout new growth. Check for soft, plump buds at the tips of the branches. If the branches are brittle rather than flexible, and the buds are dry like paper, the branch or plant may be dead.
  • If the burn does not kill large parts, small damaged areas may be successfully pruned. Wait until June to determine if and where regrowth will occur.
  • When rabbits consume evergreen foliage, leaving old, woody branches bare, they often do not sprout new growth, leaving them permanently bare.
  • If rabbits consume the bark of evergreen trunks or branches, there are no treatments to replace the conductive tissue that has been eaten away. Wait and see is the only option.

Plump and juicy buds indicate lively evergreen branches.

Alyssa Golzer/Forum

  • Species vary greatly in the onset of spring budding. Oak, basswood and ash are among the last leaves.
  • If you’re wondering if a tree or branch is alive, give the branches the scratch test mentioned in Shrubs.
  • If rabbits chew the bark from around the trunk or main branches of fruit trees, there are no sealants, paints or wraps to replace the lost conductive tissue. Trees may occasionally shed leaves, but they may quickly retract damaged tissue.

Brown spots in the grass or damage from voles

  • Rake dead grass and look closely for green shoots sprouting at soil level, which should appear by mid- to late May if the grass crowns are alive.
  • Wash dog stains with plenty of water.
  • Replant areas where there is no green activity.

Asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries

  • Check the crown area at ground level for small signs of new shoots.
  • If no buds are visible, feel the crown for live hardiness versus squishy rot.
Don Kinzler

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is a horticulturist at North Dakota State University Cass County Extension. Readers can contact him at

    (Tags for translation) Deciduous shrubs 

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