What if Your Plants Were Hit By the Drought–and Look Like This
The Southeast is still seeing the effects of the drought.
Last summer and fall, the Southeast experienced a drought of horrendous proportions. We're a region where the plants and people are used to plenty of rain—more than 50 inches a year where Grumpy lives in north-central Alabama. But the sky turned off in early July, even as temperatures soared into the upper 90s. My yard didn't see a drop of rain in 90 days. This may be the norm in California (most years, at least), but not here.
As a result, unless you watered almost every day, plants started dying. Then the Water Works declared a water emergency, banned the use of sprinkler systems, and placed a very punitive surcharge on water use. People stopped watering and plants turned brown. Even plants we consider drought tolerant—Southern magnolia, false cypress, elaeagnus (no big loss there), Chinese holly, pines, boxwood, pyracantha, even juniper!—croaked.
Now many homeowners are looking out at yards studded with trees and shrubs that are totally brown or half brown and wondering what to do—remove them, prune out the dead, plant new ones, or hope by some miracle that green leaves soon replace all the brown ones?
Uhhhhhh, about that miracle. Ain't gonna happen.
Evergreens that turned 75% to 100% brown last summer and fall aren't going to recover. Even if you prune out all the dead, you'll be left with an ugly plant that'll be ugly for years. Grumpy's advice—bite the bullet, remove the brown plants, and replace them now. It's a good time to plant. You might find something at the garden center you like even better. That's the silver lining to dead plants.
What about deciduous plants, those that lose their leaves in winter? Well, if their leaves turned brown and dropped in late summer or early fall, there's a good chance they're either dead or have died back. To find out which, do the old scratch test. Scratch the bark on trunks and branches to see if you can find green underneath. If you can, that trunk or branch is still alive and may leaf out. If you can't, it's dead. If it's practical (not talking about big shade trees here), cut back the plant to the topmost points where you can find green.
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After you've done this, you may still decide you'd rather plant something new there. Go ahead! Good gardening is always a leap of faith wrapped in discovery!