Margaret Lauterbach: Check for signs of life before assuming your late-leafing plants are dead

Special to the Idaho StatesmanMay 16, 2014 

Some shrubs and trees are so late to leaf out, we wonder if they were winterkilled. There's an easy way to find out if they're still alive.

Scratch a small patch of tender bark with a fingernail. If it's wet and greenish under the outer bark, the tree or shrub is still alive. At times, a tree or shrub, even a rose, looks dead, but there's new growth coming from soil level. This is probably suckering coming from the grafted rootstock of the tree or shrub. Such rootstocks are usually chosen for disease tolerance or hardiness rather than fruiting or blooming like the item grafted to it. In such cases, it's a good idea to just dig out the rootstock and discard it because it will just disappoint if you let it grow.

One of the latest to leaf out in my yard has been the Zizyphus jujuba (Jujube or Chinese date). That's worth growing just to pronounce "Zizyphus." It's even later than mulberry. Once you note that lateness, you won't worry about winterkill. You should keep a plant diary, and so should I.

If you're wondering if a berry cane is dead, you can do the scratch test a few inches above soil line. If you see new growth coming at the soil line, this is the way berry canes multiply, so those emerging canes will be good and produce good fruit.

One way to handle berry canes that may appear to be dead is to prune off the tips, then prune a few inches lower and lower until you reach a ring of green wood. Canes that bore fruit last year should be removed, and should have been removed before now. You can identify them by numerous side shoots coming from a cane.


Some folks in the Treasure Valley have seen their broccoli plants remain the same size as when they were planted. Those folks may have set out those plants in time for a long string of very chilly nights that stunted their growth. I put mine out early, but they've grown. Perhaps a difference of one or two days left some stunted.

If that happened to your plants, dig one up and look carefully at the roots. If they're bunched up and/or knotted, don't plant members of that Brassica family in that location until the problem has been identified and corrected.

If the roots appear normal, I'd pull them out and plant new plants. Look especially for side-sprouting broccoli varieties such as Calabrese, Apollo, Fiesta or Thompson, or for varieties known to produce over summer, or if available, Piracicaba. You should find side shoots produced continuously until frost.


Are you growing cucumbers this year? There are basically two types, the burpless and the pickling varieties. There's no law against eating the pickling varieties in a salad or pickling the burpless, although the latter won't be as good as using good pickling cucumbers.

If you're pickling cucumbers, grow enough plants that you can harvest your whole pickling amount on the same day. At least that's the usual recommendation. I have not found any of the burpless cucumbers produce much in my garden. For eating in salads, the Poona Kheera cucumber is my favorite. It's chartreuse-colored until ripe, then brown, almost resembling a potato, and produces rather abundantly. It can be eaten at any time, and is always delicious.

Regular watering usually results in nonbitter cucumbers, but if you find one bitter one, that doesn't mean all that are on the vine or all fruit that will set will be bitter. Bitterness comes from a substance called cucurbitacin, present in the leaves, stems and roots, and that occasionally drifts into a fruit.

Misshapen fruits may be bitter too, even though the contorted shape is due to a failure of pollination. Bitterness is usually concentrated at the stem end of the cuke, so you can use the blossom end without problems.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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