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Simple Scratch Test

Hinoke Cypress appears to be dead.

The larger they are, the harder they transplant. While that may not be the original phrase, it sure is true in the garden world.

Last fall, we moved a 14’ Hinoke Cypress from a friend’s nursery in Virginia up to New York on the back of Stan’s truck. The tree was dug up carefully, well wrapped in a breathable fabric and lovingly planted in a pre-prepared garden bed. We expected some die off, but as the season has progressed the tree is now a warm, honey-brown from stem to stern. Not one bud or green needle. Is it dead?

Sure looks lifeless.

I want to believe it’s too early to call it for the Cypress. This was going to be my signature piece for the Japanese style garden I am designing at our lake property. I want a low maintenance and less floral garden up here. The tree type is indeed from Japan and, if it could establish, would love our snowy winters up here.

The problem is, a lot of energy goes into moving something. And the longer it has grown in one spot, the more the roots have established. Transplanting is a shock!

This happened three years ago when we moved a much smaller dogwood tree from the same nursery to New York. The following season it, too, showed no signs of life. As the summer progressed, a few hardy leaves poked out – much later than normal. We thought for sure the tree wasn’t going to make it, but this year it blossomed and leafed beautifully. We’ve had to prune back many of the branches that did not rejuvenate, but all in all, it looks great.

So, how can you tell if a tree is dead or alive? The scratch test.

This simple test can be done with your fingernail (or small knife) to scrape bark from a small twig or branch. If the tissue under the bark is green and moist, the tree is most likely alive. Try several branches because one section may be dead, like happened to the dogwood.

According to Stark Bros Nursery website: If you find that the cambium layer beneath the bark has become dry, brittle, and brown, then it indicates that the tree has failed to live.

They also recommend two things to avoid when performing a scratch test:

1) Do not cut a large wound into the tree to determine whether or not it is living. A small spot will suffice. Large wounds cut into your tree will require more effort to heal over.

2) Do not perform a scratch test solely on a branch/limb of the tree. Testing the trunk is necessary. Limbs can break/die without determining the status of the rest of the tree.

As I thought about the significance of this test – of peeling back the outer layer to determine what’s going on under the surface, I couldn’t help but think of a recent argument I had with my hubby. I had been avoiding a certain topic because it’s easier to just keep things calm on the surface. But as we tugged and pulled back the “bark,” it showed the true health. Sure, we disagree and need to hash out our differences, but the scratch test reveals there's hope.

Maybe that’s why we fight in relationships – to peak under the bark and see if there’s life. We might not like the process, but there's something to be said for the reassurance of seeing the 'green' on the trunk.

And while the Cypress is not showing promise, I’m sure glad my marriage is. I can always put a pretty Japanese Maple in that spot, but I can’t replace my husband of more than 30 years.

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