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Garden Lifestyle

Are your Plants Dead or Alive?

After the severe winter weather that many of us have experienced, there are a good number of plants out in the garden that are brown and look dead.

  • Is this plant dead or alive? Click on other pix to enlarge and read captions.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • Cut off a bottom branch from the plant in question to see if it is wick or not.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • If the wood is brown and there is no moisture--no life present--then it is dead.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • A branch that has a green ring under the outer bark and shows some moisture is wick. You can also determine this by scraping the bark away with your thumbnail near the base of a bottom branch. There will be a layer of pale green just under the outer bark.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger
  • If there is life in the perennial herb plants, it is good to prune their tips in order to encourage new outward growth.
    Photo/Illustration: Susan Belsinger

After the severe winter weather that many of us have experienced, there are a good number of plants out in the garden that are brown and look dead. Don’t go pulling them out or cutting them back, until you check to see if they are wick.

Wick has many meanings, however, when pertaining to plants, it means that it still has evidence of some green (usually right under the outer bark) and some moisture… in other words it is still alive. A cut branch of a totally dead plant will be brown and show no sign of moisture in the stem when you look at the cross section. Recently, my gardening friend Tina Marie Wilcox wrote in her ‘Yarb Tales’ column for the Stone County Leader and the OFC newsletter about this and so I was inspired to familiarize myself and you about the term “wick” and how to tell if there is life in your plants.

In The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett, when the character Mary asks the servant Dickon if a particular plant was still alive, he replied: “It’s as wick as you or me,”; and Mary remembered that Martha had told her that “wick” meant “alive” or “lively”.”

In the following chapter, Dickon shows Mary how to tell if a branch is wick or dead. … “A body might think this is dead wood, but I don’t believe it is-down to th’ root. I’ll cut it low down an’ see.” He knelt and with his knife cut the lifeless-looking branch through, not far above the earth. “There!” he said exultantly. “I told thee so. There’s green in that wood yet. Look at it.” “When it looks a bit greenish an’ juicy like that, it’s wick,” he explained. “When th’ inside is dry an’ breaks easy, like this here piece I’ve cut off, it’s done for…”

The perennial herbs like rosemary, bay, some of the lavenders, sages, savories and thymes look pretty brown out there in the garden. So in order to tell if they are still alive, you’ll need to snip off a bottom branch or two and see if the plant is wick or not. If it is alive, then prune the branches back by about a third to encourage new growth outward to the tips. Trim off any dead parts of the plant.

If the plant looks nearly dead and is questionable and there are any green tips at all, you might want to try and root them. If the plant has bit the dust, then remove it from the garden. You can pull it out or dig it up, shake off the soil and cut the deadwood from the roots. I use the dead branches as kindling for the woodstove.

Time to get out there and clean up the garden to make room for spring!

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