After a long cold winter, many of my perennials came up late, and some failed to sprout at all. By June, I figured they were goners, but I got distracted and didn't pull them up. Procrastination saves the day! In mid-summer, I discovered a tiny sprout by the stubble of a turtlehead plant (see photo at top), little crepe myrtle shoots coming up all around their lifeless trunks, and delicate green sprouts on agastaches I'd given up on.
Dead or dormant? How to tell? Check the roots!
If conditions are dry, give the "dead" plant a good drink and let it rest for a bit before working with it. Gently loosen the soil around the base of the plant, and pull it up. If the roots are like dark, dry threads, or slimy-soft, or if they fall away with a touch, then the plant is likely as dead as it looks. If, you see pale, plump roots, however, then your plant still has strong roots, and a little TLC (tender loving care) may save the day.
My mom likes to say, "remember, a plant wants to live." It'll come back from even a scrap of root, if possible. If you're digging up or dumping out a "dead" plant, and you see what look like a bunch of healthy roots–whoa, hold the phone! That plant might just be waiting to stage a come-back. Depending on the plant, good roots might look white or yellowish, threadlike or thicker than spaghetti. Repot those roots, keep them moist, and you may be happily surprised by new growth.
Want to increase your chances of resurrecting plants from their roots? For starters–keep watering! Then, consider digging and potting up. TLC is easier to provide to potted plants, especially if you can keep an eye on them. Many gardeners have a designated "hospital corner" or "first aid station" for plants needing extra attention. Choose a location sheltered from wind and sun. Leafless plants won't need sun until they re-sprout, and even sun-loving plants can use a break.
After digging up the roots of a not-quite-dead plant, handle the roots gently. Repot in moist potting mix, choosing a container just a little larger than the size of the rootball. Many plants hate to have their crowns buried or soggy, so try to replant no deeper than the plant was growing previously. Keep the pot sheltered and shaded, watering often enough to keep the soil from getting dry. Once new growth starts, give the plant a boost with a little more sun and a little quarter-strength fertilizer.
Clematis plants are especially notable for coming back from their roots. A clematis may be "MIA, presumed dead" in the garden for a year or two, and then make a splashy comeback. Regardless of what the top growth looks like, my friend Mamajack says you "could pull a truck" with the roots of a healthy clematis!
Lately, I've been growing more perennials from inexpensive little starter plants or "plugs." They can dry up if your back is turned for an instant, but crispy tops don't always mean dead plugs. Give them a good soaking and pot them up to encourage them to re-sprout. I like to put several "iffy" plugs in a pot, hoping that at least one will make it. If they all re-start, I'll have a full-looking plant that much sooner.
Be patient. Even if your plant is alive after all, it's still been "mostly dead" for a while. It'll need gentle treatment while it gets its strength back. When you see strong top growth, and the pot is filled with roots, it's ready for replanting. After bringing it back from the brink, try harder to remember to water during hot, dry weather! An ounce of prevention, and all that.
Bottom line? Keep watering those "dead stick" plants, if Mother Nature isn't watering them for you. If you pull them up, do it carefully, so you can check for the presence of healthy roots. "Dead" plants with good roots should be potted up and kept in the shade until they've re-sprouted.
You'll be amazed at how many dead plants were "just sleeping" and waiting for things to improve!
Thanks to Mamajack for the quote and for never giving up on any plant (or any person) with good roots.
Photos by Jill M Nicolaus. "Mouse over" images for additional information.