What’s up with the brown bushes?

Donna Green
Aug 25, 2014


Q. I’ve noticed during my nightly walks through town that many people have brown, dead sections on their bushes and shrubs. How did this happen, and what should be done to the dead spots, if anything?

A. Most of those brown spots, especially on evergreens, probably occurred as a result of our horrendous weather last winter. A combination of wind, sun, and extremely dry air can cause foliage to turn brown. It is a process called desiccation, which in layman’s terms is essentially Mother Nature sucking all of the moisture out of the plant. You think your skin felt dry last winter? Imagine how your plants felt.

If (and it’s hard to know for sure) winter desiccation was the cause of your damage, the best way to avoid it is to wrap the plant in burlap in late fall to protect it from winter damage. Although it is unattractive, it may be something you want to consider doing this fall to prevent further damage. The current projection for the upcoming winter is that it will be as bad, if not worse, than last winter. Sigh.

Other Causes of Browning
•The plant may be infested with aphids. If you see small, soft body insects in the plant, you should spray with an insecticidal soap.

•The plant may be infested with spider mites. Are there tiny webs in the plant? Use a pesticide specifically formulated for mites.

•The plant may be succumbing to fungal disease. If you notice tiny black spots, remove the infected branches to avoid spreading the disease further. Spray with an antifungal spray.

•Insufficient moisture. Not enough rainfall to provide moisture for the plant? Water on a regular basis (at least every two weeks).

•Dog urine. If your bushes are close to an area where dogs like to “lift their leg” you might consider using some form of dog repellant to keep animals from urinating on your bushes.

•Salt damage. If your bushes are close to the road, they were most likely sprayed with salty slush from the snow plow.

When you first notice damage in the spring, we recommend against pruning right away to see if the plant will recover. But let’s be real. It’s August, so it’s pretty evident that the plant is not going to recover in the damaged areas. The damage is now permanent and you need to care for the plant as best you can.

What to do?
If green growth does re-emerge on the brown branch, prune the branch back as far as the green section and stop. But if there is no green, then prune it off entirely. A dead branch on a tree will never come back to life, so just prune it out and allow the tree to refill itself in that spot. In the beginning, it may look like Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw dude) went all slasher on your plants. Sort of like when I tried to cut my son’s hair with the clippers when he was a kid. Fortunately for you (and me), branches, like hair, will regrow in pruned out locations.

If sunlight can reach into that spot, a tree or bush will invest in new branches if it can get a return in the form of photosynthesis. Unfortunately, if the spot is in a shaded area, it will probably not send out new branches or leaves.


lunchtime 175

I agree that the cold weather we had last year for doing a lot of the damage to evergreens and pine trees, etc. We had 15 degree below zero weather for several days last winter and I am sure that was enough to kill or damage a lot of trees and plants that are not use to that type of weather in Ohio. Even the Knockout brand roses that were suppose to be so strong and hardy froze back almost to the ground in some parts of Ohio due to the extremely cold winter we had. Pine trees, especially the long needle variety seemed to take the winter hard and resulted in trees dying off. I think the winter we had last winter was a one in a hundred chance of ever having a winter like that again in our lifetime.

yea right

Nothing like free advice.


Yep. Good advice. Thanks.


Many years ago I was told that when a few days of above freezing temps arrive, water your evergreens. Above ground they are loosing moisture daily but below ground the roots have nothing to drink.


It makes sense but I am in no way a horticulture expert.


Another lesser known problem in our area that affects Pine trees is Bag Worm. The first signs are browning of the needles and then whole branches. Around June they hang down on a nearly invisible thread. At the end of the thread is what almost appears to be a tiny Pine cone. That "Pine cone" actually contains the larvae of the bag worm. After the bag worm hatches it turns into its moth-like stage and flutters off to infest other trees. If not treated (by a professional) it will eventually kill the tree. It was brought to northern states from southern states' nurseries.
FYI; We here had/are having a REALLY bad season with Japanese Beetles.


Dog urine 99% of the time.


Cat marking his territory, spider mites.