When spring finally arrives, plants and trees start to wake up, and the gardening world gets exciting! It is also the time of year to evaluate what survived the winter. One common misconception this time of year is that all trees and plants wake at the same time. When we compare dormant plants and trees to things that are already waking in our gardens, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.
Today, we’re going to equip you with one of the most handy tools that you can use to determine what’s still living: The Scratch Test.
If you find that the cambium layer beneath the bark has become dry, brittle, and brown, then it indicates that the tree has failed to live.
Sometimes, after performing a scratch test, you may discover the tree’s trunk shows no signs of life even though new growth still sprouts from the roots. This happens in grafted trees if the top-portion (the grafted variety) dies while the rootstock goes on living. If this happens, then it is best to replace the tree. Letting just the rootstock grow will result in a tree that lacks the qualities of the grafted variety you originally chose to plant. Rootstocks are used for characteristics like dwarfing and hardiness, and are often not ideal candidates for fruit-bearing trees.
For berry plants and vines, you can still attempt a scratch test to identify the living tissue. Simply follow the steps above for a scratch test on trees, and adjust to accommodate the size of the berry plants’ canes or vines. Pick a spot on the young cane/vine that is a few inches above the soil level to scratch.
Many berry plants send new growth up from their roots, so a dead cane may not determine a dead plant; however, a living cane will determine a living plant. With that in mind and, since some plants may feature thorns, you may prefer pruning in order to look for living tissue in your berry plants and fruiting vines.
You are still looking for greenish, wet, living wood, but it may be necessary to cut dry dead tips back to find it. Cutting this dead wood away also helps the plants to sustain healthy growth during the growing season.
If your berry plant exhibits no living tissue in the canes above the ground, and you are also not seeing any new growth sprout from the root system well into the growing season, then your berry plant is likely no longer living. Replacing the berry plant is recommended in this case. It would also be a good time to assess water drainage, soil nutrients, and soil pH in that location if the cause of death is unknown.
Now that you know how to check to see if your plants and trees are living, it’s also important to know that, if they are still dormant, they simply need more time to break dormancy — especially if this is their first growing season in your yard! Each year, the seasons and the weather are slightly different, but living plants and trees will always wake up when they’re ready.
Remember: dormant berry plants and fruit trees may take anywhere from 4-6 weeks before showing signs of growth after planting.