Q. Is there a secret to pruning lavender? Every time I try to cut it back it ends up dying!

Lavender is a tough plant and will grow exceptionally well in the hot, dry inland areas. Sometimes a little too well. I’ve had some lavender plants grow to be 6 feet across. Unfortunately, when it gets that big it will sometimes look kind of rangy. The top part may be covered with flower spikes, but the bottom part will show a lot of bare wood and become unattractive. The temptation is to cut the whole plant back since that strategy works for many perennial shrubs. For some reason, lavender doesn’t like being cut back all at once and will show its displeasure by unceremoniously dying.

After killing several lavender plants this way, I think I’ve discovered the secret to keeping them alive without letting them get out of control. It’s sneaky, but it works. I will cut only 3 or 4 stems back to about a foot (not all the way to the ground). Then I wait a week or two and cut 3 or 4 more stems. The idea is to make the plant think that it’s not getting pruned. Sure, it might take all summer to get the plant under control, but at least it won’t die.

Q. I had a beautiful sage plant that seemed to be growing well, but all of the sudden it just wilted and died. What could have caused this? 

If you have a drip irrigation system, check that first. Drip irrigation is wonderful, but the main disadvantage is that the first sign of failure is a dead plant. An emitter may have become clogged or twisted shut. A leak anywhere in a drip line will cause a pressure drop, which will cause all emitters on that line to fail. If neighboring plants look stressed or are dying, this may be the cause. Observe a full cycle and listen for hissing or excessive gurgling which indicates a leak or broken line. Check all emitters to ensure that they are working properly.

If your soil does not drain freely, waterlogged roots will quickly rot and kill the plant. This is easy to check. If the soil around the plant is soggy, this may be the issue. Sometimes this is the result of a leak in the irrigation system.

Gophers may have eaten or damaged the roots. If the plant falls over or seems to be wobbly, a buck-toothed varmint may be the culprit. Although it will not bring your plant back to life, hunting down and killing the gopher can at least provide some consolation.

Sometimes, too, a plant may just die for no apparent reason. Go to the nursery and find a new plant to fill that empty spot.

Los Angeles County

mglosangeleshelpline@ucdavis.edu; 626-586-1988; http://celosangeles.ucanr.edu/UC_Master_Gardener_Program/

Orange County

ucceocmghotline@ucanr.edu; http://mgorange.ucanr.edu/

Riverside County

anrmgriverside@ucanr.edu; https://ucanr.edu/sites/RiversideMG/

San Bernardino County

mgsanbern@ucanr.edu; 909-387-2182; http://mgsb.ucanr.edu