Is it Dead, or Just "Playin' Possum?"

If the record-setting summer weather has you questioning if your plants are dead or alive, I have a few ways to help. Let's go sleuthing- are your plants dead, or just playin' possum?

Given the endless drought, it’s inevitable that trees, shrubs and plants would begin dying, or at the very least, look dead.  This prompted a question from my good friend, Rebecca.  She was puzzled, looking at the browned, dry foliage on her plants and leafless limbs of her trees.  “How do I know if it’s even alive?”  Good question, Rebecca.  Let’s begin with annuals and perennials- they’re the easiest to figure out.

Most annuals, if they’re really dead, will resemble a plant carcass.  Thin, brittle, dried stems and flower heads that look freeze-dried indicate the demise of an annual.  If you think all is not lost, grab your pruners and snip a stem that looks better than most.  If it’s hollow inside, or brown and brittle, it’s dead.  Put it out of its misery, pulling it by the roots and disposing of it in the compost bin or yard waste receptacle.  On the other hand, if your annuals are showing small green leaves or green stems, they just might have some life left in them.  Cut the foliage back to the point where you see active growth.  If it’s dry looking, give it a slow, steady stream of water.  If, after a few days, it still looks like it’s hanging in there, break out the liquid fertilizer and give it a good drink.  Within a week, it should be putting out new, green growth.  Just be sure that it’s getting enough water as it springs back to life.  Now, on to the perennials.

This summer has seen the demise or near demise of lots of perennials.  It’s funny, though- some perennials just never seem to die, no matter what the conditions.  Peonies are one of them.  They might have some brown spotting on them, or a few crispy leaves, but most of them look really good.  Ditto for Daylilies.  I had a patch that looked nearly gone, but, after a week of water it put out lots if new growth.  It was just playin’ possum!  The same can’t be said for cooler-weather, water hogs like Astilbe, Hardy Geraniums and Ferns.   My Ostrich ferns didn’t totally die, but I did cut all the crispy-looking foliage that made them look dead.  The green, ferny foliage on my Astilbe is crisp as well.  I left the flower spikes intact just so I knew where they were.  They’re not dead, you can see new growth beginning near the center after a long soak.  Next year I am going to concentrate on perennials that can tolerate the heat and lack of rain.  My “Perfect Perennial Performers” are Purple Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, Amsonia (Bluestar) the entire Salvia family, Asclepius, (Butterfly weed)  Yarrow and Bee Balm.  My Becky Daisies did pretty well, but I did have some charred foliage to trim.  Ok, how did the shrubs do?

Well, if you have Mophead Hydrangeas you had a stunning spring.  Everyone I know had the most bodacious blooms.  Big, colorful and photo-worthy.  Then, the drought hit.  In the matter of a week, all the blooms on all my Mopheads fried.  From beautiful pinks and blues to a crispy brown.  Unrecognizable from the previous week.  It’s such a pitiful sight for such a voluptuous flower.  I trimmed the crispy flower heads off.  DO NOT TRIM YOUR MOPHEAD HYDRANGEAS BACK- ONLY THE BLOOM HEADS!  Doing this will eliminate flowers for next year.  You just have to live with the crispy leaves until they defoliate this fall.  If you notice that your Annabelle or Limelight Hydrangeas are in distress, you may cut them back.  You’ll lose this years flowers, but you will create a bushier shrub.  Many gardeners remarked that their Azaleas did poorly this summer.  They need a lot of water and really aren’t too crazy about the heat.  I have resolved to stop replacing my Azaleas that die- we’ve just been to hot and deficient in rainfall lately. Is it global warming or climate change? It doesn’t matter- they’re a struggle to keep wet enough; I’ll enjoy them in my friends’ gardens.

This was not a good year for trees.  I lost a 40-year-old White Pine in the course of 3 days.  On a Monday, I noticed a slight brown tinge to the needles.  Knowing White Pines, I knew that it was gone.  By Friday it was nearly dead and it was removed by the next Monday.  That’s the thing about White Pines.  By the time you notice that they’re looking bad, you’re too late.  Some trees defoliate as a coping mechanism.  My huge Cottonwood tree begins defoliating in August.  A good burst of wind will send hundred of large leaves flying.  Speaking of trees that defoliate, an unusual occurrence happened with the grove of Bottlebrush Buckeyes at Longview Farm Park.  In July I noticed that the right side of the grove was nearly dead.  The leaves were scattered around, but I found it hard to believe that a clump of trees would just die.  Upon closer inspection, the branches still looked green.  I slightly scratched the trunk and saw a nice, green shine underneath.  It needed water STAT!  I ran a sprinkler on the group of trees all day long.  Every few days I checked it and watered it for long periods of time, especially during those 110-degree days.  Last week the entire grove is looking splendid!  The new leaves are a bright, spring green.  Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the Buckeyes are ready to flower!  Each branch has a small, “bottle brush” bloom ready to open!  Since the trees defoliated, and subsequently were revived with large amounts of water, it was tricked into thinking it was spring!  Amazing things happen every day!  Some trees have limbs that look dead.  You can do the “scratch test” and try and find a hint of green under the bark.  If you do, that limb might set out new growth.  On the other hand, it might be dead.  You can trim the dead limbs away, hoping that you don’t lose the overall look of the tree.  Most times, though, the silhouette is so unnatural, it’s best to put it out of its misery and replant.

So, in closing, here are a few tips to assess your trees, shrubs and flowers.  If your trees have already defoliated, scratch the bark slightly to see if you have any trace of green showing.  If not, get some pruners and trim away a small limb.  If there is green in the center, it’s still alive.  If it’s brown, or hollow, it’s probably dead.  If your shrubs are droopy, have crispy leaves and flowers, they’re probably just playin’ possum.  Give them a few hours under the sprinkler and see if they revive the next day.  If your perennials look brown and the stems are thin, cut all the foliage back to the ground.  Give it a good dose of water and check in a week or so.  If nothing happens, you can dig around the top of the soil, looking for green growth.  If there is nothing green, it’s dead.  Yank it out.  Annuals can be checked the same way you do perennials.  If you are successful in plant CPR, give yourself a pat on the back.  Then, give the plants a good dose of fertilizer.   Getting nutrients to the plant will give it a real boost to take off and give you a great display for fall. 

Good luck- I hope the plants you love are all playin’ possum and not really dead as a doornail!



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