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How Do I Know If It's Dead?

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How Do I Know If It's Dead?

Okay, so it’s the end of summer and probably most of your garden is looking, shall we say, a bit crispy around the edges. As you’re moving into the fall gardening season, you naturally want to clean things up so you can plant those perennials, bulbs, and cool season veggies with a nice, tidy, clean slate. You want those dead plants out of here!

But before you go pulling everything up, let’s take a hot minute to determine what’s actually dead and what’s revivable, shall we? You don’t want to pull up and compost a prized plant only to realize it was just playing possum all along, right?

Note: This info is applicable any time of year, but we see the most dead plants at the end of summer and winter, when the weather is the harshest.

How to Tell If a Plant is Dead

We want to preface all of this by saying it’s a good idea to know as much about your particular plant in question as you’re able — plant advice is never a “one size fits all” kind of thing. It might be absolutely normal for that plant’s leaves to turn brown and fall off, so don’t panic. Do your homework while checking out these tips:

  1. What type of plant is it? If it’s an annual you planted last March, chances are good it’s a big “adios” to that one. It’s lived its best life and now it’s time for it to add to new life in the compost pile. Same with your spring-planted veggies. If it’s a perennial, bulb, or shrub, however, it might be dead but it also might be dormant, water-stressed, or weather-damaged.
  2. Know the normal bloom time of the plant. If your plant is supposed to bloom in the early summer, don’t panic when it’s not blooming in September. Similarly, many flowering bulbs have foliage that “dies back” after the plant is done blooming. The bulb itself is perfectly healthy, and this is the normal cycle of its growth. Simply cut the foliage back once it’s brown, and wait til next year
  3. Take a look at the stems. Plants that are alive have stems that are firm, can bend a bit, and have a green hue on the inside. Mushy or brittle stems are no good, indicating your plant may be a goner.
  4. Now look at the roots. You’ll need to be careful, of course, as you inspect the plant’s roots, but if you see mushy or brittle roots, we’re sorry to say that your beloved may have expired. If the roots seem healthy enough, then you might be able to revive it using some tips below.

What To Do Next

If you’ve determined that your plant is dead, then we recommend trying to figure out why it died so you can learn how to prevent this in the future. Now, every living thing has its expected lifespan, but if your dead canna was just planted this year, it’s telling you that something went wrong somewhere. Too much water, too little water, poor soil, too much/too little sun, harsh weather — all of these can impact the health and life of your plants.

But if your precious plant is still alive, what can you do to revive it? Depends upon why it’s ailing in the first place, but these are some sensible steps to take:

  • Trim it back. Carefully trim off dead stems/branches, a little at a time. You may find that the stems are alive closer down by the roots, so leave them be. Those dead stems will never grow or produce leaves or flowers, so it’s best to take them off altogether. Plus, they’re ugly (no offense).
  • Give it a deep soaking. Your plant may just be neglected and feeling sad. No worries. If the soil is bone dry, put the hose on drip right by the base of the plant and move it around every 10 minutes or so. If it’s a houseplant, try watering from the bottom by placing your pot in a bathtub or sink with a couple inches of water in it. Your plant will soak up what it needs and perk up pretty quickly.
  • Give it a little less love. Some plants are literally killed with kindness. You might be a hovering helicopter plant parent, giving it too much love. Since a plant can’t run away, it’ll simply cease to thrive. Know how much attention a plant needs and create an appropriate watering schedule — and do not be tempted to water that sansevieria for a second time this month!
  • Experiment with sunlight. Whether it’s a houseplant or a tulip, if it’s not getting the proper amount of light, it won’t flourish. Move the houseplant to a bright window (or away from it if it’s a low-light plant) and when the time is right to transplant, move those bulbs and perennials.
  • Know how to water your bulbs. We wrote a blog post on this very topic because flowering bulbs are a little different than a pothos or a astilbe. The bottom line? If you don’t see foliage, don’t water.

Now's the time to start thinking about next spring, so shop fall-planted bulbs and perennials now!

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  • Jenny Peterson