Green Thumbs down to overlooking proof of life

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 peony's buds are raring to go even while its above ground portion looks dead. The soil was at the level indicated by the blue line. Probe and scrape away a bit over an inch of soil and those pink buds would wink at you in assurance.

This peony's buds are raring to go even while its above ground portion looks dead. The soil was at the level indicated by the blue line. Probe and scrape away a bit over an inch of soil and those pink buds would wink at you in assurance.

This spring, do a flex, scratch, slice or pinch test on woody
 plants that worry you.

 Bend a twig. See if it's pliable -- dead wood is brittle.

 Scratch the twig. Look for moist green tissue under
 the bark. Dead cambium is brown, gray or
 freeze-dried green.

 Left: Our last scratch test, on frosted Japanese maples in
 What's Coming Up 181.

 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 decay.

(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 buds.

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