By Emma Murphy, Peterborough Master Gardener
It’s been a long, cold, snowy winter in the Peterborough Ontario area, and a long, cold, wet spring. After our recent ice storm in mid-April, one was left wondering if spring would ever arrive. One thing is for sure – spring has been delayed in our area by several weeks.
Some trees, shrubs, and plants are always late arrivals – think of the Northern Catalpa tree (which can leaf out almost a month after other trees), Echinacea (Purple Coneflower), and Platycodon grandiflorus (Balloon Flower).
However, this spring has some gardeners in a panic. While many woody plants are sprouting buds, maybe one of your plants isn’t doing anything to show the slightest sign of life. Is it dead? Before panicking and assuming they are dead, look for some reasons for the delay.
- If you planted something late in the season last year, it may still be settling in and putting its energy into root growth before growing leaves. I have a new garden bed I planted last fall and everything in it is late emerging.
- I know part of our garden was submerged for an extended period this spring. A spring flood can delay leafing out for trees (but cause no other long term damage).
- Did you plant something near the edge of the normal hardiness zone? It is possible that the dormant buds may be dead but the tree may still be ok. You need to give it time to see if it recovers.
- For trees and woody shrubs check the branches – try the “bend but don’t break” test – try and bend them a bit – if they are dry and snap rather than bend that is not a good sign.
Doing the Scratch Test
My favourite trick is the scratch test. It’s very simple – you scrape the bark off a small section of your woody shrub or tree and take a look. With your fingernail or penknife, scratch a section so you can see the cambium (layer just under the outside bark). If the tree/shrub is alive, the cambium will be green. If it’s brown or white and dry, unfortunately, it may be dead. However, don’t give up all hope! If it’s brown you can try another scratch further down the trunk to confirm death (or life!)
If the cambium is dead, the only hope left is that the plant will be able to regenerate from its base. That’s often the case for shrubs, but not all trees. And if a tree does resprout from the base, if it was a grafted tree (the case with most fruit trees, for example), what grows may not be the cultivar you wanted but the stock plant (the tree the desirable variety was grafted on to).
If you find only part of the stem on a plant is dead you may want to cut the stems back to the first visible green growth. If no new growth is visible, a rule of thumb is to cut the stems back a third of their length at a time until you find green tissue. Prune too early though and you risk further damaging the plants (for example, from a late frost). Check the Old Farmer’s Almanac list of frost dates (for Peterborough that’s about May 12). It is generally safe to prune about two to three weeks before the last frost date, since you are less likely to experience a damaging frost at that point.
The ultimate word is patience. Warmer weather has arrived now and hopefully you will be able to ascertain any damage to your garden from this tough Canadian winter and wet, cold spring. Happy Gardening!!
(Featured image from www.thetreecenter.com)