The Purpose of Plant Dormancy
- sometimes plants need to take a break -

Posted on January 12, 2022

The Purpose of Plant Dormancy
The term “plant dormancy” is helpful to understand so you know if your plants are healthy and following a normal cycle of the seasons. Dormancy can be roughly compared to hibernation in the animal kingdom. It helps plants to prepare for the long, cold winter ahead.

There are many external factors that let perennial plants (that survive from year to year) know when the dormancy period is at hand. Some of the environmental changes that trigger dormancy include changes in the length of the days, changes in temperature and periods of drought. Most plants enter their dormancy period in the fall and then emerge from dormancy in the springtime.

Care for Dormant Plants


Hosta plant in autumn with leaves turning from green to yellow and brown as the plant goes dormant for the winter.

The most important thing you can do when it comes to dormancy is to allow nature to take its course. It is important not to interfere with this natural process. The following are steps you can take to accommodate a plant’s dormant period:

1. Adjust your fertilization when plants are dormant.


A dormant flower border that has been mulched with compost.

You should avoid fertilizing the garden in the late summer or fall months. Applying fertilizer can stimulate new growth, and that could interfere with the natural dormancy period of the plant. In temperate areas of the country, where plants grow throughout the fall and winter, it is fine to continue fertilization.

It is okay to apply mulch or compost at any time of year, in any region. Organic materials break down slowly and don’t encourage a rapid spurt of growth. Mulch can also help protect sensitive plant roots in winter.

2. Avoid pruning shrubs in late summer or fall.


Gloved hands pruning a shrub in autumn.

Pruning usually triggers vigorous new growth at a time when shrubs should be preparing to slow growth and go dormant for the winter. Fresh, new growth late in the season is more vulnerable to the freezing temperatures of winter and could easily get killed. In general, pruning should be done when the plants are dormant or just after flowering in the spring. It’s also easier to see where to make cuts when the plants are leafless.

3. Reduce watering for plants that are nearing dormancy.


Little girl with watering can on a cool autumn day watering the last marigolds of the summer.

It is also important not to water the garden in the fall months unless the area is suffering from a severe drought. If the fall is very dry, it is fine to water moderately, but take care to avoid watering too much as the plant is entering its dormant period.

What is the Dormant Season for Plants?


Perennial flower garden in autumn.

Plant Dormancy is a time of rest. The dormancy period will vary according to the climate and the type of plant. In the southern states, dormancy will begin later and end sooner. Northern climates will see their plants enter dormancy earlier and emerge later. The weather will be different from year to year, of course, and that can affect the dormancy period.

How to Tell if a Plant is Dormant


Womans hand touching a leafless winter branch with dormant leaf buds coated with ice.

Learn to tell the difference between plants that are dormant and those that are dead. Beginning gardeners presented with dormant plants may believe they are dead. Do research or ask for help from an experienced gardener to determine if your plant is dormant. To determine if a woody plant, such as a shrub or tree, is dead or resting, lightly scratch the outside of the stem with your fingernail or a small knife. If the scratch reveals a green layer underneath, the plant is in its dormant period.

List of Plants That Go Dormant in Summer


Collage of photos displaying spring flowering bulbs, Virginia bluebells, and oriental poppy.

In regions with freezing winters, nearly all plants go dormant. But here are examples of common plants that go through dormant periods outside of winter:
  • Flowering bulbs grow for a short period after they bloom in spring. Then they die back to the ground for the rest of the year. These include tulips, daffodils and hyacinths.
  • Many wildflowers retreat into dormancy during the heat of summer. It’s common for woodland plants to go dormant by late summer. Some examples are spring beauties, Virginia bluebells, bloodroot and Jack-in-the-pulpit.
  • Popular flowering plants that often go dormant in summer include oriental poppies, delphinium, some species of bleeding heart and lupines.

Plants Come Out of Dormancy Naturally


Tulip plants emerging from the ground in spring with spruce tree in the background.

As spring approaches and winter dormancy ends for most plants, you will see them slowly reemerge. Depending on the climate and the daytime temperatures of the spring season it may take some time to see evidence of new growth. Be patient and before long you should see your plants awakening from their winter nap.

If you have plants that didn’t go dormant but died over the winter, then confirm you are selecting the right plants for your growing zone. Understanding Plant Hardiness Zones in the USA explains how to find your zone and offers tips on choosing plants for your location.

Dormant shrub in winter surrouned by snow.

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