Are some of your evergreen plants looking brown after winter?
Winter dieback is a common problem caused by several factors, including a lack of moisture that dies out the branches or salt used on roads.
Often the affected branches can be pruned out, but Ryan Pankau, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, advises that you wait a bit.
Evergreen plants respond differently to pruning based on the growth habit and needs of individual species. Certain evergreen species, such as pine and spruce, lack interior or secondary buds that will be stimulated to grow after the dead tips are pruned off.
"In these cases, I recommend waiting another month or so to be sure any dead-looking limbs are truly gone," Pankau explained. "Although needles may be entirely dead, there may be live buds on the stem that will produce new growth as the growing season progresses."
To recognize damage prior to spring leaf-out, there are a few simple tests for identifying live twigs versus dead twigs. Since a twig has very thin bark, it is easily scraped away with your fingernail. "Scrape away a small section of bark and look for green coloring,” Pankau said. "Green interior bark indicates the twig is still alive.
"If you see brown or gray, consider that limb a goner. Similarly, individual buds can be removed and carefully bisected to look for green plant parts. If you can find succulent, green plant parts inside the bud, then there is still hope for that limb."
Although minor instances of winter injury can be pruned out, homeowners should still be concerned about the damage and look for ways to mitigate future winter injury. For highly exposed areas, there are a number of interesting and creative ways to block either wind or salt spray, from makeshift temporary screens to installation of permanent fences.
Consider watering plants well into late fall to be sure soil moisture is adequate going into winter. In addition, a 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch is very effective at conserving moisture and insulating the soil.
In some years, there are just no avoiding extreme winter conditions, but with additional attention during the season and follow-up in spring, your evergreens can flourish for years to come.