They could be diseased or windburned—and certainly not past the point of no return.

By Kelly Manning
January 11, 2021
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When an outdoor plant takes a turn for the worse—think loss of foliage or drooping, yellow leaves—it's easy to assume your plant has died. Oftentimes, however, the outward appearance of our annuals and perennials can be misleading. Signs of stress caused by storms, winds, disease, insect damage, or even irregular watering can appear similar to those exhibited when a plant is actually dead. To better understand what's happening in your garden, and distinguish between a plant in distress versus one that's beyond saving, we spoke with garden experts in the know.

Credit: Getty / Ronnie Kaufman

Yellowing or Wilting Leaves

Discolored or drooping leaves is often an indication of a dead plant. "When plants are in stress, leaves fall off because the plant is losing moisture and trying to protect itself," explains Kip McConnell, director of Plant Development Services, Inc. And while drooping leaves are never a good sign, there may still be hope. McConnell suggests performing a scratch test, whereby you scratch the base of the stem with your nail, or other sharp object, to see if there's green beneath the surface. Work your way up the plant, McConnell advises, breaking off a few stems, to see which sections are dead or alive. Prune any plant matter sans green underneath, as this is an indication that it is no longer viable. If you're performing the scratch test during fall, wait until winter, when the plant is dormant, or spring to prune, so that growth is encouraged at an optimal time.

Wind Battered or Cold Damaged

Strong winds can "scorch plant leaves, causing them to burn and fall off," says McConnell. Take preventative measures by replenishing mulch around the base or wrapping burlap around delicate varieties, such as boxwood, for protection. Furthermore, a plant exposed to cold temperatures can not only experience external damage, including wilting and discolored foliage, but internal damage, as well. Justin Hancock, head of brand marketing at Costa Farms, explains that "the cells of tropical plants, or those with tender growth, can freeze, expand, and then burst if left in the cold." How long the plant was left in the cold, its sensitivity to a chilly climate, and how far the temperature dropped will determine its recovery time.

Diseased or Insect-Infected

Plants experiencing disease often exhibit discolored, spotty, or white residue-covered foliage; keep an eye out for distorted leaf growth, light green foliage, or pesky creatures munching away. McConnell recommends taking a picture of the damage to show a professional at your local garden center for specific advice. Moreover, chew holes in foliage or white spots where nutrients have been sucked from leaves are prominent signs of insect damage. In both cases, McConnell advises gardeners to identify the type of plant experiencing the issue and researching how to treat it online if a local expert isn't able to advise you.

Plant Death

For plants without upright growth, which prevents you from performing a scratch test, Costa suggests carefully digging around the roots to survey their condition. If they're soft, then the plant is unhealthy, whereas firm, light-colored roots are ideal. Often, the peril of our plants is not dependent on a severe weather event, but rather inadequate or excessive watering. Unfortunately, the signs of a thirsty plant are very similar to those of one that has been overwatered. In both instances, wilting leaves are prominent, leaving gardeners trying to overcompensate, which adds more stress and damage. "Keeping adequate moisture around the plant is the most important thing you can do to keep it alive," says McConnell.

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