Readers are besieging Grumpy with frantic questions about trees and shrubs that don't look right. Some have branches that haven't leafed out. Some have bare branches and are sprouting only from the base. And some show no signs of life at all. "Why is this happening and what should I do?" they ask.
In most cases, the reason why plants look like this now is a very cold winter. Every plant has its cold limit and if the mercury drops below that, injury or death may occur. Most of the eastern U.S., including the South, had a much colder-than-normal winter. Lots of plants were hit hard, but the ones I'm getting asked most about are gardenia, crepe myrtle, French hydrangea, and Japanese maple (like Margy Miller's above).
The Scratch Test When a branch takes a lot longer than normal to leaf out, you naturally wonder if it ever will. In other words, is it dead? The easy way to tell is to use your fingernail (or claw, in case you're a badger), to scratch the bark and see if there's a layer of green underneath. If there is, the branch isn't dead yet and may still leaf out. If there isn't, that sucker is dead.
However, once we get into warm weather, not leafing out is a very bad sign. You may see green underneath, but each passing week makes leaf-out less likely.
Prune for the Cure Three levels of winter damage are common now. Let's talk about what to do about them, proceeding from light damage to moderate damage to severe damage.
1. Light damage -- Like the Japanese maple show above, most of the branches have leafed out, but others have not. The ones that haven't won't. Prune them out now. The plant will replace them.
2. Moderate damage -- The above ground part of the plant shows no signs of life, but green suckers are sprouting from the base. This frequently happens to French hydrangeas and crepe myrtles planted at the northern limit of their cold-hardiness. Again, any growth that hasn't leafed out by now probably won't. You can wait a few weeks to make sure, but the odds are stacked high against it. Cut out the leafless part and let the plant grow back from the base. In the case of crepe myrtle, let all the suckers grow to about three feet tall, then select 3-5 strong, well-spaced ones to save and remove the others. These suckers will become the new main trunks.
3. Severe damage -- The plant shows absolutely no signs of life. Why? Because it is dead. Dead things tend to stay dead. They don't skip a year of living and then miraculously leaf out the next year. (Yes, Grumpy has been asked if this is possible.) Suck it up and replace the plant. Dealing with death is what gardening is all about.