CSI: Las Vegas, The Horticulture Files

Almost anytime I consult with a client with an ugly tree or shrub in their yard they’ll have two very specific questions for me.

1) Do you think it’ll come back?

and

2) What do you think killed it?

Today I want to try to answer those two questions for as many of you ugly-plant havers out there as possible.  *Please take note of my hyphen usage there.  I know you guys are all super hot but some of your plants are straight up hideous.

First, let’s get into whether or not your plant will come back from whatever’s affecting it. There are a few things you can do to try to work out the problem. If you don’t know the name of the plant, that’s definitely the best place to start. Once you know the name of it, you can determine whether or not it’s deciduous or a perennial. If it is and the plant took a dive right around the time the cold weather came to town, there’s a pretty good chance it’s simply dormant for the season.  Also, if the leaves all turned a brilliant red or golden yellow before they dropped, it’s almost certain that tree or shrub was just going through its normal process.

I feel I should give you a heads up that you’re going to see the word ‘gently’ thrown around a lot in the next couple of paragraphs. Please remember that just means it’s very, very important.

You can gently scratch the outer layer of a tree or shrub’s stems to determine if there’s still  life in it. Soft, greenish tissue inside is an indicator of life while brown, brittle wood is a sign that the tissue in that area is dead.  Try bending the stems or branches gently to see if they break. The very small outer branches of a deciduous tree/shrub may break off fairly easily but large lower branches should bend, indicating live wood inside.

Finally, if the plant has been in place for a few months or more, you can test to see if it’s well-rooted. If it’s a tree, try gently pushing on the trunk and see if the soil heaves around the base. With a shrub, gently pull up to see if it comes loose from the soil. If the soil at the base of a tree that’s been in for awhile moves it could be an indicator that it’s not well-rooted. If you pull gently on a shrub that should be rooted and it comes out of the ground, well, I don’t think I have to spell it out for you but that is N-O-T G-O-O-D.

So here’s the thing: if there’s live tissue in a plant, that doesn’t mean it can or will come back. It just means it isn’t completely dead yet so there may be some hope. If you’ve done all of this and still aren’t sure whether or not your plant is alive, you can always wait for the late spring and see if it puts on new foliage. If it doesn’t, it’s most likely dead and should come out.

Now, let’s get into what may have killed your plant. That can be an impossible question to answer if the plant has been dead for a long time. Sometimes a bug will leave behind evidence of their damage but plants that are stressed by cultural conditions (water, light, etc) are often the first targets of harmful insects. This means that treating them to kill the bugs may work temporarily but if the primary problem isn’t addressed the tree will have a shorter lifespan anyway. In some cases, bugs can actually serve as an indicator that something else is wrong and the tree is stressed out about it.

Now make sure that your plants are being watered appropriately and that it’s an appropriate plant for where it’s located. Once you have the name of a plant, just Google for the botanical name and use it to find your information. I know botanical names can be intimidating but there are way too many plants with shared common names so you’ll find far more reliable information using botanicals.

The next step is crucial and probably just a good life strategy in general: do not trust everything you read on the internet. You could make yourself seriously ill or lose your entire life-savings or get really awful plant advice. Be careful out there, people.

There’s more to not trusting what you see online than just being cautious though. Plants here face a set of conditions unlike almost anywhere else in the country. We have extreme temperatures and crap soil and very little water. If you’re getting advice from someone in Florida or Minnesota or San Diego it’s going to be really hard to gauge how it will work in Vegas.

Very often the cause of death to a plant simply can’t be determined without sending a tissue or soil sample to a lab. In most cases it honestly just isn’t worth the trouble unless you’re planning to replace it with the same tree or shrub.

I want all of you to enjoy your garden and I know it makes it really hard to do that if your plants keep dying and you’re not sure why. Just remember that each and every tree and shrub can serve as a lesson for what to do (or not) the next time around.   Happy Spring, Martians!!!

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