How to revive plants?

How To Tell If A Plant Is Dead And How To Recover An Almost Dead Plant

How do you tell if a plant is dead? While this may see like an easy question to answer, the truth is that telling if a plant is truly dead can be a difficult task sometimes. Plants do not have vital signs like a heartbeat or breathing in and out that would make it easy to tell if it is truly dead or alive. Instead, you have to rely on more subtle clues.

If your plant has lost all of its leaves or the leaves have all gone brown, don’t panic. If you suspect your plant is dead but you aren’t sure, the fastest way to tell if it is dead is to check the stems. The stems of the plant should be pliable and firm and will have a green cast on the inside if they are still alive.

If the stem is mushy or brittle, check the roots for the same conditions. The roots, too, should be pliable but firm. If both the stems and roots are brittle or mushy, the plant is dead and you will simply need to start over.

Is the Plant Really Worth Saving?

The next step is to decide if you really want to make the effort of nursing the plant back to health. Keep in mind that a plant may still die despite your best efforts. Also, the plant will look utterly pathetic for weeks, months or even years. Is it worth spending the time to recover what may be a lost cause, or could you get a comparable but healthy plant at the local nursery or store for a reasonable price? If this is a plant that has sentimental value or is hard to find, than it is certainly worth saving. Otherwise, you should just start over again.

What to Do When Only the Roots are Still Alive

If the roots are still good, but the stems are dead, you will be hoping that the plant re-grows from the roots. Cut away the stems a third at a time. You may find that as you get closer to the roots, the parts of the stem may be alive. If you do find living stem, try to leave as much as possible. If you find no living stem, leave at 2 inches of the stem intact above the soil.

Place the plant in conditions where it will get roughly half the amount of sun that is normally recommended for that plant. Water only when the soil is dry to the touch. If the plant is able to, you will see new stems sprout from around the remaining stem in a month or two. If you do not, recheck the roots to see if the plant has died.

What to Do When the Stems are Still Alive

Trim away as much dead stem as you can find on the plant. Place the plant in conditions where it will get roughly half the amount of sun that is normally recommended for that plant or in indirect light. Water only when the soil is dry to the touch but do not let the soil dry out completely. In 3-4 weeks, maybe less, you will hopefully start to see new stems or leaves being produced where the old leaves were. As the leaves and stem become more fully developed, cut away any parts of the stems that are not producing leaves or stems.

If you do not see any new leaves or stems after a few weeks, recheck the stems on the plant and prune away the dead wood as the stem dies.

Even with all the love and attention in the world, it is sometimes not possible to save a badly damaged plant. Sometimes you just have to start over and try not to let what happened before happen again.

How to tell if a plant is dead

I know, I know, you wouldn’t have people needed to search for this, but they do. Sometimes plants pretend they’re dead when actually they’re just having a little rest or need a good drink.

Some plants just…look dead. I have a cactus that’s covered in dust and rabbit hair (it’s too spiky to clean!) and is scarred from an elongated mealy bug assault and it looks…dead. It’s not though, because it’s growing like hell.

Plant’s don’t breath or move (there are exceptions here) or have a heartbeat, so it’s not always possible to know if you’ve reached the end of the road.

Is a plant dead if all its leaves have fallen off?

Well, you’d think, wouldn’t you? Since plants need leaves to photosynthesise and stuff. Except their roots can do a sterling job of pushing out new growth when it’s time.

But no, plenty of plants go back into their tubers and shed all their leaves. Some don’t do this as a matter of course, rather they do it from neglect, in the hope that their owner will rehome them to someone more caring about their needs.

They can often still be revived from their root ball.

Some plants (Philodendron Gloriosum being an example) actually have their leaves removed prior to shipping, because they don’t travel well, and will be irreversibly damaged.

The plant may as well use its energy to keep its roots strong, rather than waste it on protecting leaves that are going to be damaged and will have to be snipped off anyway.

Some plants, such as cyclamen, die right back every year and can be revived back from their bulb. Unless you actually water yours too much and it rots, of course. Oops.

Is a plant dead if it gets root rot?

You can save plants from root rot but you have to act fast. In extreme situations (such as if repotting and leaving to dry out don’t work), you can perform surgery on your plant and snip off the mushy roots.

The root should be firm and usually white. If the roots are all brown, mushy and gross then it may be time to say your goodbyes.

Is a plant dying if it starts losing leaves?

Plants lose leaves as part of their natural cycle, so you need to look at

a) which leaf it’s lost and

b) how many leaves are dropping.

A single leaf turning brown and dying near the bottom of the plant is probably natural. If a plant is being watered inconsistently, then it may sacrifice either it’s the oldest leaf (usually one near the bottom) or the largest leaf.

If it’s just one, that’s cool. If it’s losing a lot of leaves in quick succession, you may have to swoop in an rescue it.

Is a plant dead if its leaves start turning brown?

Not necessarily, but it is a sign that your plant is dying. Brown leaves usually indicate underwatering, but I’d advise checking with a moisture metre. If your plant is already wet then you’ll just be killing it faster.

Brown leaves could also indicate sun damage, so check that your plant isn’t in full sun for a portion of the day.

It could also be a bacterial infection. Cut off the brown parts of the leaves, change the soil, spray it with neem oil and hope.

Is a plant dead if it’s leaves start turning yellow?

Yellow leaves are likely to be a sign that your plant is being overwatered, so check the soil.

If it’s sodden, then check the roots and see if they’re mushy. then re-pot, perform surgery if required.

Yellowing or brown edges to leaves are usually a sign that you don’t have high enough humidity, so you may need to find a way to increase it.

Telling the difference between a dead and a dormant plant

There are a couple of harsh ways to tell if a plant is dead or dormant:

  1. Select a stem and bend it. If it snaps, your plant is probably dead. If it’s reasonably pliable, it’s probably dormant
  2. Scratch the stem with something sharp. If the flesh underneath is green-tinged and damp, your plant is alive. If it’s dead, you’ll have a job even scratching it. Keep scratching your way down the stem, to see if the whole plant is dead, or just the ends.
  3. If you’re still unsure after performing both of these tests, then go back to checking the roots. If the roots are gone, the plant is gone.

If the stems are alive further down the plant, then snip off the dead parts. If part of a plant has gone completely brown it usually means the cells have died and can’t be revived.

Reviving a dying plant

There’s no secret to reviving a dying plant – just treat it nicely. Put it in a spot where it gets plenty of bright, indirect light and isn’t in a draught. Make sure it’s getting enough water but don’t overwater it. Don’t fertilise dying plants – the added chemicals may prove too much and be the final nail in the coffin.

Make sure you cut away any parts of the plant that aren’t serving it – any brown leaves can be snipped off, as can brown portions on leaves.

Don’t re-pot if you don’t have to. Re-potting a plant can place it under a lot of stress, which won’t help the situation.

Things to do if you suspect your plant is dying

  • Google the plant. There may be something you’re not providing it with, such as enough light. Some plants can’t tolerate tap water, for example, so you may need to use rain or filtered water. You may discover that it’s just come to the of its life. I don’t know of any house plants that only live a year or so but you never know.
  • Be vigilant about pests – they will attack a vulnerable plant. I had a Dieffenbachia that hadn’t been happy for ages (I still have no idea what I did wrong – I tried everything), but it was mealy bugs that finally killed it. Keep the plant clean using neem oil to ward off any unwanted critters.
  • Don’t just water it. Water will not necessarily help a droopy plant – it might even be too much water making it droop.

Is my plant dead? Understanding plant’s cycles.

Over the years I’ve definitely asked this question more then once. “Is my plant dead?” All the leaves have dropped, the stem broke, or the plant straight up exploded on impact when I dropped the pot to the floor. Whether you forgot to water, a cat got adventurous or you accidentally left a shade lover in the blazing sun all day, a lot can go wrong when caring for plants. “Here’s a little water, not too much, and not too little, there ya go little buddy.” Unlike collecting stamps or antique toothpicks, plants are living, breathing creatures and require the same respect as you’d give to a house cat or child. I know this sounds like a daunting task, but it’s easier then it sounds, after-all a ficus is significantly less work then a toddler. Don’t despair, we’re all capable of growing gorgeous healthy plants. It might just take a little bit of trial and error, and a better understanding in how plants work. Not all dead looking plants are in fact departed, sometimes they’re just asleep or set back, waiting for their chance to flush out once again.

Dicentra emerge in mid March, grow quickly, flowering abundantly, and peter out and die by mid summer. Only to return every season, this is there time to shine.

I think the biggest concept amateur plant geeks don’t understand is that plant’s generally live seasonally and in turn transform and change throughout the year. Some plant’s like a common philodendron or spider plant stay the same nearly all year round, just add water, and your plant will happily grow from January to December. Other plants live for a specific season and/or condition, waking up to the right weather and light, and then sleeping for the rest of the year. While the cute little florist cyclamen you have in your windowsill flowers it’s heart out for 3 months in early spring, it doesn’t die after flowering, it just rests so as to gather energy for next year’s floral display. The plant will show all signs of death, a decrease in growth and sometimes no foliage whatsoever. It’s best to do a little research for before tossing out a dead looking plant. A cyclamen in it’s native habitat has evolved to flower at the right time of year to meet it’s pollinators. My cyclamen outdoors flushes it’s foliage out in winter and early spring, thus gathering energy from the sun without the competition of the now leafless deciduous trees above. Plants are opportunists and while this might not be conducive to your year round floral display, they often maintain the time table they acquired while evolving in their natural habitat.

Last fall I went to inspect my euphorbia griffithii only to find a hallow dead cane. The good news is unlike other euphorbias in my collection, E. griffithii is deciduious and dies back every season. A lesson in plant cycles and more importantly a better understanding of this plant’s personality. Look at it flowering now (april 8th 2012).

Many of the exotic plants I have from the southern hemisphere still think they’re in Africa, growing in the winter and flowering right as we’re getting our first frosts. Crazy stupid plant, don’t you know you live in Canada now. Some plant’s can be tricked into growing outside their natural cycles, but often with disastrous results. The common Venus fly trap often sold at grocery stores and other quickie plant stops, will inevitably die in your kitchen as they need a winter dormancy to chill out and regain lost resources. While you might be able to trick it into living for a couple years by providing non-stop awesome conditions, eventually they burn out. Every single plant in my collection has a specific habitat and condition it thrives in and for the best results you should do a little research. If you don’t want to look it up or read it on the internet, the best thing you can do is observe. After-all there isn’t a tutorial on every plant variety out there, the more time you spend with your plants the more you’ll learn about their idiosyncrasies.

“You’re telling me the tulips outside live their entire existence to flower no more then 1 week a year, then go dormant again for 10 months. I’m afraid so Billy, plants are strange bunch indeed”.

Beyond the natural cycles of plants, a mistreated plant will sometimes look dead but is really just waiting for more suitable conditions. Case and point I recently had my Acacia pravissima drop all it’s leaves this winter and dry up to a crispy shade of dead. While I had worried that the frost had finally become to much for it, it turns out the pot dried out under the eve and the plant didn’t have enough to drink. Upon snapping branches, depressed and dissapointed I noticed the cambium underneath the plant’s bark was still green. A true sign of life, while this plant is still knocking on death’s door, there is still hope. Given the right conditions, and a little luck my Acacia might flush out again when things get a little warmer. A simple thing like transplanting is sometimes enough to put a plant to sleep for the year. You’ll often be surprised to plant something, watch it die within the week, only to pop up next spring. An unfortunate cold and wet winter might set back some plants and have them skip an entire season all together. Plant’s are a difficult bunch, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what they’re up to. If I really love a plant I often will let it’s dead looking self sit in a unseen corner in hopes of recovery. More often then not, I’m surprised with the results. Have you ever grabbed hold onto a leafless tree, only to feel the roots fight back and not relinquish the branch from the earth. It looks like your still alive little fellow.

A couple tips on checking if your plant is dead.
First of all, inspect the parts of the plant that are above the soil. If you make a small scratch on a branch and still see some green, the plant is still alive. If your plant looks dead, ask yourself why? Does the soil look waterlogged, what’s it smell like? Rot stinks like a sewer, and can often mean true death to a plant. If you feel soft spots in the branches of your plant, but it hasn’t spread everywhere, sometimes a simple surgery can save it’s life. Removing rot, applying fungicide, and crossing one’s fingers might make a difference. If the plant isn’t doing so well, is there any sign of life? Removing the pot and inspecting the roots can sometimes help. A plant that is alive will often have a healthy root system, sometimes a dead looking branch will hide healthy growth buds under the soil.

Signs of a healthy plant below the soil line.

If i find myself with a truly miserable looking plant I sometimes try to gauge how good a life it had before it declined in health. If you have a plant that has grown flawlessly for 3 years, then suddenly dropped all it’s leaves, it might have enough energy stored to grow back. If it’s barely limped along so far, and it hit an unfortunate leaf drop, it might not bounce back this time. I often think of plants as little machines with their leaves acting as little solar panels. Even if a plant looses 97% of it’s foliage, I figure the 3 leaves it did keep are still generating some energy for it, and best left undisturbed in hopes of a slow recovery.

When a plant isn’t doing so well, relate to it as a sick friend. When you get a cold you aren’t looking your best. Decrease watering, place it in a protected area, and be extra cautious about bug infestations. I don’t know what it is about a sad plant that attracts aphids and other critters, but they smell the weak one’s in the herd. Most of all have patience. I won’t tell you how many times I’ve got fed up waiting for a plant to regain it’s health, only to rip it out of it’s pot and see new buds forming. At this point it’s often too late, having damaged it for the last time, it won’t have enough energy to fix this impatient mistake.

Remember… All gardener’s kill plants, but most of us have more successes then failures. Happy growing.


Revitalize blueberries with renovation

Blueberries have a distinct growth habit. Each spring new shoots emerge from the crown at the base of the plant. These shoots grow quickly the first couple years when they are young. They then start to bear fruit. In the fall, flower buds for next year form at the tips of this year’s growth. Last year’s shoots fruit at the tips and branch below. Every year the new shoots fruit and branch again. In a few years, you have an old, gray cane with many short branches. These small shoots have one or two flower buds and a few leaf buds on each shoot. The fruit and leaves on these older, less vigorous canes are smaller and the cane gets weaker and weaker each year. These older canes produce a lot of flowers at the ends of all the small branches, but do not produce a lot of new growth. Eventually the cane dies.

The trick for blueberry growers is to know when to remove these older canes. I feel that blueberry stems are most productive when they are three to six years old and should be removed in the seventh or eighth year if not before. A good balance for a blueberry bush is to have 20 percent of the canes as one- to two-year-old shoots, 60 percent as three- to six-year-old canes and 20 percent as canes older than six years old slated for removal.

This 30-year old Bluecrop bush shows many older, weaker canes and no new growth from the crown. Bushes like this are an excellent candidate for renovation.

A lot of growers are reluctant to prune and remove fruiting canes that will fruit next year. Over time the bush has more older canes and fewer newer shoots. The older canes often die during the winter, and experienced growers will say, “We should have pruned harder,” and new growers will ask, “Why did all those canes die?” What is needed is a drastic removal of old canes to force the bush to grow new shoots and replace the old, weak, aging canes. I also often speak to people who have bought or inherited an old blueberry farm or planting. They have the same question, “How can I revitalize the blueberries?”

The labor involved in pruning out most of the canes on a large planting of blueberries is daunting and everyone asks, “Isn’t there a cheaper, quicker way?” Yes, there is. Cut off all the canes and grow a whole new crop of canes. Many people then ask, “Won’t that kill the plant?” No, blueberries are bushes, not trees. Their natural habit is to grow new shoots from the crown every year. If you cut off the top, the crown will send up new shoots as it is programmed to do so. Increasing fertilizers will result in some more growth and perhaps some new shoots from the crown, but the older canes remain and they are not going to be revived by more fertilizer.

Renovation involves mowing or grinding off the plant in the spring. The blueberry bush responds by growing many new shoots. Dozens of new shoots emerge and grow quickly from a dense clump of new shoots. The problem is that you may have too many new shoots. Here are pictures from a Michigan blueberry field that was renovated several years ago.

Blueberry crowns soon after they were ground down to a height of several inches.

Blueberry shoot growth from the crowns in early spring.

One season’s growth renovated plants on left and unrenovated plants to the right, 40 year-old ‘Jersey’ blueberries. Photo taken in September.

Renovation should be done as early in the spring as possible. Don’t wait for growth to start in the spring. The later you do the cutting, the less time is availble for the plant to change gears and get a good start on annual growth. You are not finished after removing the bush canopy because they will produce many more new canes during the next year or two than are needed. Several years of increased pruning is needed to the abundant new shoots. Generally, I recommend growers remove two-thirds of the new shoots the first year and then about half the new shoots the second.

An alternative to cutting the whole bush down is to remove one-third or half the canes one year and then the rest over the next year or two. This approach may allow for some fruit harvest during the process, but often the canes that are left are weak and not very productive. This approach requires more pruning time than cutting all canes at once.

Advantages of renovation:

  • Renovation of existing fields allows growers to quickly develop a new crop of fruitful shoots.
  • Quicker and cheaper than replanting.
  • Growers lose only a few years of production.

Unfortunately, renovation is not a cure all for old blueberry fields. Renovation can work well if a healthy planting has been neglected. It can be especially useful if newer plantings are out of balance with many older canes and few new shoots. It is not a panacea for older plantings. Renovation is likely to expose hidden problems in the field.

After renovating older fields, growers may discover virus diseases they did not know were in the field. This is because grinding the crowns can spread isolated viruses throughout the planting. The vigorous new growth of infected plants will often show virus leaf symptoms in the first season after the stumps are ground off. Plants that were infected during renovation will not show symptoms immediately. Generally, it takes several years for virus symptoms to appear after infection. Since many older plantings already have viruses in the plantings, Michigan State University Extension does not recommended renovation for these plantings. The only treatment for virus-infected plants is to remove and destroy the plant. If viruses are suspected in the field, infected plants should be identified and removed before renovation.

Renovation is only a short-term stimulus for some fields. These older, problematic fields on good sites are probably the best candidates for replanting.

Shoot growth from renovated crowns. Photo take in January before pruning.

Spring growth the following season. Note that most of the canes that grew the previous season have been removed and more new shoots are growing from the crown.

Close-up of renovated plants. Note that plants were cut back to a half-dozen shoots. Last year’s shoots are blooming and putting out new shoots.

Cornell University

Among the many causes of sudden wilting, die back and death of canes are:

  • Winter Injury
  • Boron Deficiency
  • Canker Diseases
  • Blueberry Tip Borer
  • Rodent Damage

Winter Injury:

Cold temperatures can kill canes outright above the snow-line, although the floral buds are most susceptible to injury. Cut buds open to determine if floral tissues are brown (below).

Fluctuating spring temperatures can result in plants looking normal until temperatures rise in late spring. New growth and fruiting clusters suddenly collapse and die (below).

More typically, though, with winter injury, die back occurs to a certain point on the cane, with growth below the die back looking normal (below).

More information on winter injury.

Boron Deficiency:

In rare cases, boron deficiency causes die back of canes without wilting or cankers present. A leaf analysis can verify this diagnosis. More blueberry nutrient deficiency information.

Canker Diseases

Canker diseases may also cause dieback of shoots, and are sometimes confused with winter injury. In many cases, winter injured wood is susceptible to canker infection.

Cankers cause a characteristic flagging of shoots during summer. The canker restricts movement of water and nutrients, causing the cane to wilt and die (below).

Fusicoccum canker tends to infect the lower portion of canes. On young canes, the lesions look like a bull’s eye (below).

In older canes, the interior wood is brown (below).

Phomopsis canker infects canes through winter-injured wood, usually the tips of canes (below).

The canker grows down the cane, gradually killing it. Small spore-producing structures (pycnidia) can be seen on the canker margins (below).

Cutting into the green wood below the dead portion will reveal brown interior pith if the canker is still active (images below).

More information on blueberry canker diseases

Blueberry Tip Borer

Blueberry Tip Borer (Hendecaneura shawiana) causes drying of terminal leaves and tip wilting in blueberry (photo below courtesy M. Longstroth, MSU).

Look for a pinhole, sometimes plugged with frass, below the wilted leaves (below ). Adult moths lay a single egg on succulent shoot tips.

The larva burrows into the shoot and begins feeding (below).

Terminal leaves dry and shoot tips wilt (below).

More blueberry tip borer information

Rodent Damage

Rodent damage may occur during winter as rodents feed on the bark of blueberry plants (especially those that are heavily mulched), either girdling them completely or partially girdling them. Rabbits, mice, and voles will girdle the base of canes when food becomes scarce (below).

When growth begins in spring, girdled canes will suddenly die from lack of water. Rabbits will also eat cane tips at or above the snow line. Browsed cane tips on blueberries (below) caused by rabbits – note telltale droppings (click for larger image).

Below: blueberry canes are stripped of bark (white areas along canes).

Look for signs of rodent activity including runs, holes (below), and droppings.

Woodchucks can be a problem in blueberry plantings. Burrow excavation (below) may damage root systems. Burrows also pose a walking hazard to workers and customers.

More rodent damage information

It may have been a while since you watered your bushes or you may have moved to a place where the previous occupants did not take care of their bushes. Regardless of the circumstance, bushes will be able to survive if given the right amount of water and nutrients. The first thing to do is check the roots. Chances are that they plant have not been watered in a long time. You can dig the ground slightly and check the conditions of the roots. You can also insert a tube inside the ground to check the ground quality. If the insertion tube has a hard time going through the ground then the ground is dried up and clumpy which will require more watering. Soft and healthy soil will permit any device to plow through the ground with ease.

Water as necessary until the ground is soft and healthy, but make sure not to overwater to the point where the ground becomes muddy. Check the quality of the soil as well. Depending on the bush, it may be lacking the necessary nutrients in order to grow well. You can go to your local nursery to find out what kind of nutrients that your bush will need. Adding fertilizer or compost is a great way to add nutrients to any garden. If your plant grows flowers then make sure that the bush has a good amount of nitrogen to help the flowers grow better. Both potassium and phosphorus will also come to make plants healthier as well. Be sure to do the proper research to add a good amount of nutrient level to the bushes. You can also add some mulch to protect the soil and keep the ground moist and heated.

Be sure to trim the bushes as well. It is a good way of making room for new stems and leaves. As you water and add the necessary plant nutrients, pruning will also encourage growth of new leaves and flowers. Trimming your bush is also a good way to keep the bushes neater while giving direction of proper growth. Be sure the bushes are not infected with any kind of disease such as mold or insect infestation. Watch out for aphids and any grubs that may live underground. If there is any kind of infestation then add the necessary fungicide or insecticide to make sure no disease or insect is draining the plant’s nutrients.

If your plants have become a casualty of the recent cold weather snap, or are simply showing signs of neglect, here’s a few useful steps for reviving them.

Image by vetcw3.

According to web site Gardening Know How, just because your plant is limp and brown doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dead. If the stems or roots still have a hint of green and aren’t brittle or breaking off, there might be some life left in it yet.


If the roots look salvageable, trim off all the dead stems and leaves, and give the plant only half as much sun as it normally requires. Lightly water it, and in 3-4 weeks you should start to see some signs of life. Be sure to trim away any stems that aren’t producing leaves.

If the stems are history, you still might be able to rescue the plant anyway:

Cut away the stems a third at a time. You may find that as you get closer to the roots, the parts of the stem may be alive. If you do find living stem, try to leave as much as possible. If you find no living stem, leave at 2 inches of the stem intact above the soil. Place the plant conditions where it will get roughly half the amount of sun that is normally recommended for that plant. Water only when the soil is dry to the touch. If the plant is able to, you will see new stems sprout from around the remaining stem in a month or two. If you do not, recheck the roots to see if the plant has died.

These methods aren’t foolproof and, despite your best efforts, your favorite hydrangea still might end up DOA, but it’s worth a shot to try and save it. Have you ever rescued your plants from the brink of death? What restorative tricks worked for you? Let us know in the comments.

How To Tell If A Plant Is Dead And How To Recover An Almost Dead Plant


Emma Townshend: How to bring back plants from the dead

I killed the olive tree. I moved its pot one frustrating day over the winter, when I knew that its roots had dug into the patio looking for water, and a big handful of suspiciously significant-looking growth came away in handfuls. And then it was dead. Yep, actual death.

It’s easy enough to do, especially at this time of year. A common technique is to leave your plants in the vicinity of the British Isles, assume that this is a Very Rainy Place, and that you don’t need to hassle a neighbour to actually water them. And then, immediately, as a direct result, a heatwave ensues.

However, what looks dead is not always dead. So this is a little motivational talk about stopping before you dig that “dead” plant straight out and chuck it away. Fair enough, if it’s your prize window boxes and your mother-in-law is due any minute. There, I can see the argument for new planting on the spot. But lots of first-time gardeners assume that once the leaves have fallen off, the plant is properly, unrevivably dead. Which is often far from the truth.

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Plants, it turns out, have all kinds of zombie-ish habits that work in their favour. To start with, most plants will lose their leaves when stressed about water. There’s not much point having leaves to photosynthesise if you haven’t got any water, one of the essential chemical raw materials for the engine of plant life. So the first thing is to restore the supply.

Just watering plants with the hose might help, but it’s better to soak them. Small pots should sit submerged in buckets or the sink for a couple of hours. If you can bear cleaning the bathroom afterwards, big pot plants can have a filled cold bath for an hour or two to great benefit. And the apparently dead denizens of garden borders should be heavily watered, with the hosepipe left on for 10 minutes or so, aimed directly at their roots.

Second, keep up the watering for a week or two. Make it regular after that first soak, and ensure that the soil is really properly wet through each time. So much watering is just a quick wetting of the top 2cm of soil, which doesn’t really help anyone, although of course it does make everything smell nice.

With shrubby plants – those that have hard, woody stems – you can cut an unimportant side branch to see whether there is green growth inside, indicating that the plant still has life in it. With softer growers such as geraniums or fuchsias, look for new sprouting leaves within a fortnight or so.

Help the guys along with a liquid feed, perhaps an organic seaweed mixture such as Vitax (£5.99 from Amazon). Minerals are an essential part of the rejuvenation process, and water-stressed plants are much more prone to disease, so it’s a good idea to keep a close look-out for predators, pests and creeping fungus infections, delicious as those all sound.

Though obviously, if you were secretly relishing the idea of filling the new gap with something different, you’ve no need to take any of this advice. I was slightly feeling that way about the olive tree. “Hurrah!” my evil little brain thought, “Now I never have to get twigged by that stupid spiky tree ever again.” But not surprisingly, I suppose, given the conditions that olive trees survive in mountainous Italy, mine has just started to resprout. Little grey-green leaves are bursting out of the trunk and branches.

Tough love time. The olive tree is not coming back in my garden, but it’s now on Freecycle for someone else to take away and love. Or possibly kill. But at least this time it won’t be my fault.

First aid plant therapy


No matter how dry and yellow, start with watering. Most grass will re-green within 10 days. Don’t start expensive reseeding till you’ve tried hosepipe power.


Roses can go into weeks and weeks of suspended animation then start resprouting. If there’s still any green at all, don’t chuck your rose, just keep watering.

Fruit trees

First they drop their fruit, then their leaves, and you will lose a year’s crop if so. But flood them with water and you should get new leaves for the late summer.

Stop the drop

Constant watering is the best technique. I know I say this every year, but buy an automatic watering system: Hozelock’s 20-plant kit is £54.98 from Amazon.

How to tell if your hibiscus will come back

Brenda Beust Smith photo

This is my variegated hibiscus pictured above.

I’ve been trying to train it into a tree. It wasn’t cooperating but I hadn’t given up yet.

I got it up to about 10 feet tall with three vertical stalks/trunks by continually stripping sprouted branches from about seven foot down.

It responded by putting out five new lower sprouts for every one I pinched off.

It was becoming a war of wills.

Now I’m wondering if I weakened it to the point where it couldn’t survive this past winter at all.

At this writing, there’s still no evidence of new green growth. The stalks are brown all the way to the ground.

But I have hope. And Barry Schlueter has given me even more.

Writing in the current “Petaloid,” he says not to discard any hibiscus root system until the middle of April. This is the Lone Star Chapter, American Hibiscus Society newsletter and membership would be a valuable asset to anyone growing this wonderful tropical shrub.

Barry’s a familiar name to serious hibiscus growers. Unfortunately, he says, “Any brown or black discoloration is ominous.” But, he also adds, “… in many cases this year, new growth will emerge from below the soil line, provided the roots are still alive.”

One must believe, one must believe, one must believe…

Barry recommends not cutting plants back until new green growth appears. Then prune back just above the topmost of the new green shoots.

He notes that container-grown hibiscus left outside are less likely to survive, although those double-potted (one pot inside another) might have a better chance.

If you have an exotic hibiscus, chances are it was grafted onto a stronger rootstock. It’s possible that root stock might send out shoots, and they’ll be different from the plant you purchased.

Be patient, Barry warns. Those plants that do survive may take longer than usual to green up and bloom.

Log onto the society website ( for more information on joining and on their first upcoming show, April 24 at the Tomball Community Center.

I promise, if my variegated hibiscus returns, I’ll let it be the shrub it wants to be.

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