Most people will agree that both success and failure often come in several stages. Almost every gardener can add that those stages are not perfectly predictable. Sadly, the lowest branch on the dogwood shrub looks dead this spring. No buds opening, no hint of leaves as other branches flourish, and you can see broken twigs at the end. Your pruning shears, however, have a different verdict. Both bark and pith seem strong and slightly damp where you cut behind the twigs. At least part of this branch is alive but dormant.
Dead vs. Dormant: Differences
On some shrubs, dormant branches are very easy to distinguish from dead ones. (Dormant, from the French, means sleeping.) Bark and inner wood may be very different colors in living branches; some branches contain an inner core of softer wood or fibers. Inner bark may have a greenish tinge to it, and bark layers may tear rather than cut easily. A living cut branch may feel slightly damp to the touch. If you have trouble determining whether the branch you plan to cut is dormant or dead, cut a small live branch or large twig to compare with it.
Dead vs. Dormant : Annual Dormancy
Most perennial plants and trees enter some degree of dormancy during winter months. Growth slows, deciduous shrubs and trees cast off leaves, bud formation stops. Water needs lessen, although dormant shrubs should be watered during prolonged winter dry spells. Extreme water deprivation, severe wind, ice and snow may all cause branches to die during dormancy. Branches that were previously injured or infested with insects may also succumb, death becoming evident only when spring growth begins.
Dead vs. Dormant : Immediate Treatment
Dead shrub branches can and should be removed at any time of year. The pressure they place on surrounding branches and the possibility of their spreading insect infestation or disease dictates prompt removal and disposal. Trim dead branches back to living wood or to ground level if necessary. Live branches can also be pruned at any time if they are torn, broken or diseased.
Dead vs. Dormant: Pruning During Dormancy
Non-emergency pruning is best done when shrubs are dormant. During this period, trim branches that cross or rub against each other, trim back for shaping, or thin out old growth. Dormant pruning places less stress on shrubs than pruning them during active growth. It is important, however, to know which of your blooming shrubs set buds on old or new wood before dormant pruning (prune azaleas, for example, right after blooming rather than during the winter for the greatest abundance of flowers).
Dead vs. Dormant: Wait and See
Nearly every gardener has a wait-and-see story: the mock-orange that seemed to take the last snowfall very badly; the azalea with the big dead spot; the single cane on the rambler rose. In some cases, parts of a woody shrub that have suffered winter stress will remain dormant longer than the rest of the plant, and it is difficult to tell what will happen. If possible, carefully remove obvious damage and prepare to wait. Use the potential loss of a favorite shrub as the occasion to review and improve your usual care routine for all your shrubs and trees. And wait. The regenerative abilities of plants are quite astonishing. When you've done all you can, a well-cared-for plant will do the rest.