Sometimes an unusually cold winter comes along in which temperatures drop well below the average low. When this happens, sometimes certain shrubs, trees or other plants that might be on the borderline for cold hardiness in your area or USDA Plant Hardiness Zone will suffer damage evidenced by foliage burn, leaf drop and/or damage to stems and branches. Or maybe it's summertime and you came home from a week long vacation to find that your irrigation system broke down and a recently planted plant looks dried up and dead. 

In any event, though your plant may look as though it has died, maybe it hasn't? Maybe it has just defoliated in order to sustain itself and some or all of the roots and/or branches are still alive. If so, there's a good chance that with proper care you can restore your plant to health and vigor. 

There's a simple test we call the 'scratch test' that can be performed to determine whether all or only parts of a plant have died. 

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 top of what appears to be a "dead" stem or branch and use your knife or fingernail to scratch off or remove a tiny section of surface bark. If you see that the underbark is green this means your plant is most likely alive and leaves have browned or shed due to frost burn or lack of water. If the underbark is brown, black, grey or discolored this indicates that part of all of the 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 or an inch or so above the next bud down on the branch or stem.

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 and 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. 

Important Note:  Keep in mind that a plant which has lost most or all of its leaves will not be drinking much water until new leaves have emerged. So provide only enough water to maintain a damp to moist soil, not constantly soggy or wet, which can cause root rot and other harmful plant diseases.

Hope this information was helpful. 

Plant Long & Prosper!

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