My plant looks bad. How can I tell if it’s dead or alive? Here are three things to know

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

There are signs that indicate you have become a gent of a certain age. When I get my hair cut, even if I don’t know the person wielding the scissors, I typically get rung up for the senior rate. And people who look as old as I think I am, will spontaneously refer to me as, “sir”. I can live with that.

Another indication that I’ve been around longer than an unripe banana is that since my wife and I have been married for more than 37 years, I am often asked by younger folks what the secret is to a long and successful marriage. Of course, the best answer is that for many years, I woke up most mornings about 2 hours before Carolyn. I’ve always maintained that “early riser” and “morning person” are not the same thing . . .

And it’s a good thing we have such a strong relationship because as we all know, any long marriage is not all roses and unicorn dust. The art of respectful negotiation is essential. And in the Cappiello household, that negotiation is most heated around two topics – living room pillows (and there’s nowhere near enough space here for us to deal with that one . . . respectfully) and artificial plants.

Now I’m sure you can guess that I’m not a fan of pathetic plastic plants (sorry, was that disrespectful?) And to be fair, my dear wife typically prefers the real thing to those polyethylene imposters (sorry . . . I did it again . . .) But she contends that with our busy lifestyle, sometimes, and in some places, the artificial route is just more doable. And I have to admit, some of the modern artificials are pretty darned nice. Of course she’s probably right . . . But I’d never admit that . . . at least not in public . . .

As I write this, we have an artificial boxwood wreath with spring bloom accents hanging on our front door. And every morning and evening as I walk past it, I’m overcome with an urge to take out a lighter and instigate an “accident”. But then I do have to admit that those artificials hold up much better to all the weather insults a Kentucky winter, or spring, can throw at them . . . especially this year!

As we all emerged from our winter hibernation this year, it was clear that Mother Nature had thrown us what baseball fans know as a bit of chin music – one of those high and inside pitch reminders of just who is in charge. And many of our plants leaned into that chin music to less than stellar results. And unfortunately, our plans for the perfect Derby garden for the perfect Derby party have been dealt a serious blow. So, what’s a Derby gardener to do?

Here are a few tips:

How do I know if it’s dead or alive?

Whether it is a cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus ), nandina (Nandina domestica), holly (Ilex species ) or boxwood (Buxus species), well let’s just say that brown is no longer the new black. It certainly isn’t green! Is it just the leaves that have died and dropped? Are the stems dead, too? Will it come back from the base? And most importantly, will anything good and green happen before Derby?

Well, last one first. Any evergreen shrub or tree that has significant damage simply isn’t likely to do anything to make you proud by the time Derby comes around. So best get the pitcher of juleps ready earlier than normal this year.

As for longer term answers, it gets more complicated. If the leaves turned brown and dropped, new growth might still emerge as long as the stems haven’t been damaged. But that’s likely to be a bit after Derby.

To test if you’ve had stem damage, the simple finger nail test (scratching the bark on young branches with your thumb nail) will reveal either a bright green or that unmistakable brown that no would-be Derby garden party planner wants to see. If the inner tissue is green, you’re in good shape. New leaves may not make  it for Derby, but should come soon. But if it’s brown beneath the bark, at least that part of the stem is gone. Keep scratching lower and lower on the stems until you either hit green or you hit ground level. And while you’re at it, you can cut out anything that is brown below the bark. It’s never going to magically turn green.

The good news, even if that good news will help a bit too late to be of Derby party service, many of those evergreens that may have been killed to the ground, will likely sprout new growth from the roots. Not that it will help you this spring, but it might mean that the plants are not a total loss.

Quick fixes for the winter ravaged Derby garden.

If your garden took a bad hit and you have a nice collection of seriously winter-killed plants, there’s still hope.

First, following the thumb nail test, cut back all the brown, damaged branches. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cherry laurel, holly or living room pillow, if it’s brown, it’s gone. Take the plunge, cut it all back and then reassess the garden. Remember, your Derby party guests don’t know what’s supposed to be there. So if you work magic on what remains, you may be the only one at the party to be the wiser.

Second, edge and mulch. A good, sharp, spade-cut bed line with a nice, fresh-looking layer of mulch (only 1-2” deep!) can make a heck of an impression.

Third, bait and switch. Sure, there’s a hole where the specimen nandina used to be. Nobody knows that but you. Visit your local garden center and grab a few nice sized annual pots, a tropical palm or two. Maybe drag that beautiful cobalt-blue ceramic container out of the garage, set it up on blocks to add a little drama and fill it with a pot of bulbs. Hang a piece of art work on a fence panel or two or the side of the garage. Rather than point out the dead plants as your guests arrive, give them something fun to admire. And don’t forget to hand them a drink before they head out to the garden!

But of course, if you don’t have time for all of that, come by the house. I’ve got a beautiful boxwood wreath for your front door!

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on April 4, 2023.

About the Author

Blurb about Paul here.

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