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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog
winter injury on arborvitae

Wait-n-See Spring


If you are like me you likely have a lot of dead plants or plant parts in your yard. Last weekend while walking around my yard I noticed that one of my redbud trees in the front yard is completely dead. Today as I drove to work I noticed a large dead branch in one of my sea green junipers. Many of my perennials and some shrubs are dead in them.

Most people assume that the damage is from our severe winter, and that is partly true. The main culprit, however, was the severe drought summers of 2012 and 2013. Plants were already stressed and low on water reserves going into the winter. Frozen ground, cold air temperatures, and excessive salt applications on roadways all worked to deplete those plants even more.


What can you do? The first rule of thumb is to determine whether the plant is really dead or not before removing it. Determine if there is life in a plant by lightly scratching the stem with your fingernail or a key. If green shows through, the stem is alive. If it is completely brown and breaks easily, it is dead.

The second rule of thumb is often to wait and see what happens. Let me explain.

Many perennials have died back to the ground, but their roots may still be alive to sprout again. Examples in my yard include butterfly bush, sage, lavender, and other herbs. Cut back all the dead plant material above ground and wait to see if the roots resprout.

Many evergreens and broadleaf evergreens have brown needles and leaves on the outer edges. We call this winter desiccation. The most prevalent plants with this injury include boxwood, arborvitae, yew, juniper, rhododendron, and azalea. If the damage is severe, prune the dead areas back to live wood. In some cases, however, those dead leaves will simply fall off as the new leaves begin to grow.

Unfortunately, many of our roses have significant injury and death. Shrub roses such as knockouts will resprout from the lower stems that were protected by snow cover. Simply prune back to live wood and watch them grow. For roses that grow from a graft union near the soil, such as tea roses, you need to look closer. If the plant is completely dead above the graft union, remove it.

The most devastating for me to see are the dead trees and large shrubs. It often takes a tree three to five years to show injury from a drought. Don't cut down the tree too soon. Wait until you see other plants of the same type green up and see what life returns to your plant. If still brown, removal is recommended. A dead tree can serve as a host to many pest problems and should be destroyed.

Finally, take care of those plants. If you can, water appropriately during periods of inadequate rainfall. If you need help with a specific plant question, talk to a Master Gardener on their Hotline at (309) 685-3140(309) 685-3140 ext. 13 Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. or email them at uiemg-peoria@illinois.edu.



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