How To Care For Dormant Plants

by David Salman

Perennial Garden in full bloom - most of these may have arrived as dormant plants

Most perennial plants go into a state of dormancy, or winter rest, as a result of the cold temperatures and shorter daylight hours of winter. These sleeping plants lose their stems and leaves and are dormant, not dead! They will re-grow from their roots with the arrival of spring. 

 

Dormant plants might appear dead, meaning you may not see any signs of growth or life above the soil. The key is to check the root system--it's the truest way to tell if the plant is dormant. Look for light, strong, roots, as shown below with a Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) plant.

Example of a dormant plant (Asclepias incarnata) that might appear dead, but is healthy and alive.

 

What To Do When Dormant Plants Arrive

  1. All dormant plants are ready to plant upon arrival. Don't up-pot and hold. They will be healthier and grow more quickly when planted in the ground.
  2. After planting, water thoroughly with Root Stimulator Combination Pack (liquid seaweed and SuperThrive) at first watering, and then one or two more times 2 to 4 weeks apart.
  3. Mulch well - be sure to leave 1-2 inches around the base of the plant. 
  4. After a thorough initial watering and mulching at planting, these plants will need little to no additional water until new growth begins to emerge. Check under the mulch. If the soil feels dry, then water lightly. (If planting in a low desert region, a watering once every 2 weeks may be needed if day temperatures are hot.)
  5. After plants begin to grow new leaves, watering once every 7 to 10 days is adequate until the weather warms and the plant begins active growth. Then water as needed. 

 

High Country Gardens Guide To Dormant Plants

Our helpful chart will give you information about how to care for individual plants in dormancy. Most dormant plants will start to show new growth in late March, or when warm weather and longer days become consistent, unless otherwise specified. Be especially patient with dormant grasses, which won't be expected to wake up until mid-April.

 

Agastache Glowing Embers®, Ava, Desert Sunrise®, Desert Solstice, Rosita (Hummingbird Mint) Mature stems are bare and have been cut back, plant will push many new shoots from the crown by mid-spring.
Allium (Summer-Blooming Forms) Allium Millenium (Millenium Ornamental Onion) and Allium scenscens 'Blue Twister' (Blue Twister Ornamental Onion) will push new foliage from the main bulb as weather warms. New side shoots will develop around the main stem by mid-summer.
Amorpha canescens (Leadplant) As are most shrubs in spring, this plant is shipped completely dormant.
Amsonia jonesii (Western Bluestar) May be starting to sprout when shipped, but it is often slow to wake in spring.
Andropogon gerardii Windwalker® (Big Bluestem Grass) A warm season native grass that goes completely dormant in winter. Plants will begin to push new shoots from the base of the plant by mid-April as the nights begin to warm consistently.
Asclepias (Milkweed or Butterfly Weed) - All varieties Most Asclepias species including Asclepias incarnata, Asclepias syriaca, Asclepias tuberosa Clay form and Asclepias tuberosa Western Gold are late to wake up in the spring, and will often be shipped as dormant plants. So don't despair if your potted milkweed is asleep above ground. The white roots and woody crown are alive just waiting for consistently warm weather to wake up and begin to grow.
Artemisia filifolia (Sand Sage) Thin semi-evergreen foliage on multi-branched main stem. Test for flexible stem.
Berberis fendleri (Fendler's Barberry) Deciduous shrub holds onto old leaves until emerging new leaves push them off. Test for flexible stem, but be careful not to snap it off with too much pressure.
Campsis grandiflora 'Morning Calm' (Morning Calm Trumpet Vine) New growth will push from the base of the stem in late spring. Slow to wake up, new growth may not appear until April or May.
Ceratostigma plumbaginoides (Hardy Plumbago) Plants hold foliage from last fall retaining its red color. Leaves may fall off before new foliage emerges in late spring. Slow to wake up, new growth may not appear until April or May. Be patient!
Chamaebatiera millifolium (Fernbush) Thin semi-evergreen foliage on multi-branched main stem. Test for flexible stem.
Chilopsis linearis (Desert Willow) All varieties of Chilopsis, including Conchas Dam Pink, Hope, Lucretia Hamilton and Paradise varieties are slow to wake up. This deciduous tree loses its leaves in fall. Healthy plants will have a flexible stem, but don't bend it so hard that you damage or snap it. New growth may not appear until late April or May. Be patient.
Chrysothamnus nauseosus (Rabbit Brush) - all varieties This deciduous tree loses its leaves in fall. Healthy plants will have a flexible stem, but don't bend it so hard that you damage or snap it.
Dalea purpurea, Dalea candidum (Prairie Clover) Herbaceous plant loses leaves and branches over the winter. Begins to wake up by mid-April. Look for tiny shoots emerging from the soil.
Forestiera neomexicana Forestiera neomexicana 'Berry Girl' (female New Mexico Privet) and Happy Boy' (male New Mexico Privet) will have thin semi-evergreen foliage on multi-branched main flexible stem.
Helianthus maximiliana (All Varieties) Helianthus maximiliana 'Santa Fe' (Maximilian's Sunflower), Helianthus maximiliana 'Dakota Sunshine' (Maximilian's Sunflower): Plants go completely dormant losing stems and leaves. New growth begins to appear in early April. Look for new shoots by early April.
Liatris (All Varieties) Liatris aspera (Rough Gayfeather), Liatris ligulistylus (Meadow Blazingstar), Liatris punctata (Prairie Gayfeather): Plants lose most or all leaves and stems over winter. Check for small corm (woody bulblet) just below the soil surface.
Mirablis multiflora (Wild Four O'clock) Plants lose all leaves and stems over winter. Check for off-white carrot-like root just below the soil surface. Slow to wake up until the weather warms consistently in late April or May.
Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus (Maidenhair Grass) A warm season grass that goes completely dormant in winter. Plants will begin to push new shoots from the base of the plant by mid-April as the nights begin to warm consistently.
Oenothera macrocarpa cultivars, Oenothera fremontii 'Shimmer' (Evening Primrose) A native plant that loses its stems and foliage over the winter. Plants begin to push new shoots by mid-spring and grow quickly as the weather warms.
Panicum virgatum (Prairie Switchgrass) all varieties A warm season native grass that goes completely dormant in winter. Plants will begin to push new shoots from the base of the plant by mid-April as the nights begin to warm consistently.
Phemeranthus calycinum 'Judith's Choice' (Fame Flower) Plants lose all leaves and stems over winter. Check for thick, fleshy stem and crown just under the soil or sticking up right on the surface of the soil. Plants are slow to wake up. New growth will not appear until the weather warms consistently in late April or May. These plants won’t begin to grow until warm summer weather has arrived. The long thin string-like roots are brittle and do not like to be disturbed when transplanting, so don’t scratch out the root ball. Continued watering during cold weather will rot the roots. Don’t start to water regularly until the weather warms and the plants begin to grow.
Prunus besseyii 'Pawnee Buttes' (Dwarf Sand Cherry) Deciduous shrub loses all foliage in fall. Slow to wake up in the spring. Will bloom first before leaves emerge in mid-spring. You can test for a flexible stem, but be careful not to snap it off with too much pressure.
Ribes odoratum 'Crandall' (Crandall Current) Deciduous shrub loses all foliage in fall. Test for flexible stem, but be careful not to snap it off with too much pressure.
Salvia daghestanica Platinum® (Silver Sage) Plant goes solidly dormant in winter. Foliage always looks dead in early spring. But the stems hold onto small tufts of silver foliage. New greener growth emerges in mid to late spring. Be patient.
Salvia reptans (Grass Sage) A late-to-wake native plant from higher elevations of west Texas. Shoots will begin to emerge from the crown and base of the main stem by mid-April or early May.
Schzachyrium scoparium (Little Bluestem Grass) all varieties A warm-season native grass that goes completely dormant in winter. Plants will begin to push new shoots from the base of the plant by mid-April as the nights begin to warm consistently
Shrubs (except for Chamaebatiaria) Shrubs will not be leafed out yet, but stems will be flexible.
Vernonia lettermanii Iron Butterfly (Ironweed) Native plant from Arkansas, this plant is very slow to wake up and will wait until late spring when the temperatures are consistently warmer to begin pushing new growth from the crown.
Vernonia lindheimeri v. leucophylla (Silver Ironweed) Native plant from very hot area of West TX, This plant is very slow to wake up and will wait until late spring when the temperatures are consistently warmer to begin pushing new growth from the crown.
Zinnia grandiflora Gold on Blue Prairie Zinnia, Prairie Zinnia: Old top growth in spring may look thin, but plants have strong crown and roots. This plant is very slow to wake up and will wait until late spring to begin pushing new growth from the crown. These plants won’t begin to grow until warm summer weather has arrived. The long thin string-like roots are brittle and do not like to be disturbed when transplanting, so don’t scratch out the root ball. Continued watering during cold weather will rot the roots. Don’t start to water regularly until the weather warms and the plants begin to grow.

 

Remember: Plant dormant plants immediately, as they are ready to go in the ground. Do not hold them or up-pot them. They will establish more quickly by being planted dormant. The roots will begin to grow before the new growth emerges. Allow your dormant plants some time to wake up. If your soil is still too cold, it may take longer in your region for these dormant plants to awake.


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Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.

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