Maybe it's late winter or early spring and a shrub or tree in your landscape has yet to emerge from dormancy and you're not sure whether it's dead or alive. Or maybe it's summer and you just got back from a week vacation and a shrub or tree you recently planted in your landscape has defoliated. In either case, your first thought may be that the plant has died, but this might not be the case. Based on weather conditions during the winter to spring seasonal transition period, sometimes plants are just late to emerge from dormancy. Sometimes due to dry conditions a plant will go into survival mode and shed all its leaves to conserve life energy. In either case, it doesn't mean your plant or tree has died. If not, there's a good chance that with proper care you can restore or revive your plant. Sometimes it's as easy as a good deep soaking with the water hose.

Before planning a funeral or memorial service, use the Scratch Test!

How To Perform The Scratch Test

The scratch test is very easy to do. All you'll need is a small knife, strong fingernail, coin, or other sharp tool. 

To perform the scratch test, start near the tip of what appears to be a "dead" stem or branch and use your knife or fingernail to scratch off or remove a small section of surface bark. 

If after removing the small section of surface bark you see that the underbark is bright green this indicates your plant is most likely alive. 

If the underbark is a dull green this could be an indicator that your plant is alive but in poor health. 

If the underbark is brown, black, grey or discolored this indicates that part of all of that stem or branch is dying or has died. Continue moving down the branch performing the scratch test until you find green underbark. If and when you find green underbark, use pruners to cut and remove the dead or dying plant part. When removing the dead plant part, make your cut just below the point along the branch or stem where the underbark becomes green.

Continue this process on any and all stems, branches and trunk if necessary. Even if the only green you find is on the trunk(s) this indicates the roots are still alive. Sometimes, especially during an unusually cold winter, an otherwise hardy plant can't be frozen back to near the ground but will flush new growth from the base when soil temperatures warm.

What next?

After you have performed the scratch test on some or all of the affected branches, and have removed and discarded all dead or dying plant parts, use the finger test or a soil moisture testing probe to check soil moisture around the roots. If the soil is dry give the plant a good deep soaking. If the soil is moist or wet, with the exception of bog or wetland plants, which prefer a very moist to boggy soil, provide water only if and when necessary to maintain a damp to moist soil. 

Wait to fertilize plants until new growth has reemerged. That said, an application of an organic plant food or 1/2 inch layer of aged compost can be beneficial to supply the plant with vital nutrients. 

Hope this information was helpful. 

Plant Long & Prosper!

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