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Dying rosemary could be just an anomaly

Q. My problem is my 20-year-old rosemary. It has grown very large, nearly 7 feet across and 4 feet tall, and every year it preforms like a champion, until this year. I knew that the summer and winter had been stingy with natural water, so I was careful to add some supplemental watering when it wasn’t too cold. As spring came on, I noted that a number of rosemary bushes around town were either completely dead or mostly so. In my case half of my rosemary was/is dead and the rest was/is coming back but with dead areas. I’m wondering if it’s been the overly dry weather, age (after all, it’s nearly 20 years old) or another cause that caused this, and if it’s too late to try to save my rosemary. – R.K., Albuquerque

Tracey FitzgibbonA. I’m not at all sure what’s going on with your rosemary, but don’t feel like this is happening to just you.

I’ve received three letters and have had coworkers asking about the same thing, all in less than two weeks. All the rosemary in question are showing large amounts of dead and dying branches with no particular reason, except that, in my opinion, there must have been the “perfect storm” of difficulties and a lot of rosemary got caught up in the storm’s wake.

It sounds like you did the best you could, offering the extra water periodically and aiming to keep yours protected, but sometimes things happen. I liken it to the great crepe myrtle demise of about ten winters ago when it got so brutally cold and many of the crepe myrtles here in the Metro area couldn’t handle it and in turn went belly up. That was sad indeed!

But it does seem weird that you are noticing several rosemary around town that were completely dead or mostly so. That’s telling me that it is probably caused by lack of care at a critical time the plants needed assistance. I haven’t heard or read about any large “rosemary blight” that is effecting our rosemary, so I truly believe that this phenomenon is an anomaly.

Now comes the decision making time. You say your rosemary had been a “champion” in your landscaping for years, offering lots and requiring little from you in the way of maintenance. But if it looks horrid then it could very well be time to tear off the Band-Aid, remove it and start fresh.

Harsh I know, otherwise it will take seasons of constant vigilance on your part – especially for a plant that has grown to take up so much space – to keep it pruned and convince it to come back to its previous glory. Every couple of weeks you’ll need to be snipping it back to aim the rosemary to flush out more internal growth (so to speak) so it fills back in. You are talking lots and lots of constant maintenance.

I didn’t find any sites saying if there is a rule of thumb as to how old a rosemary can and does grow, but you’re correct in thinking that 20 years is old.

If you decide to remove the troubled plants, know it is going to be a lot of work. Rosemary, especially established ones, have a pretty sturdy root system, so lots of digging will be in order to get the old out, making room for anything new.

But everyone who asked about their troubled rosemary seems to have a good handle on growing them, so I’ll recommend starting from scratch. Be gone with the sad, heartbreaking plant and grow a new champion in you landscaping.

I think it’ll be easier emotionally looking at a young plant showing lots of promise as opposed to a plant that could be aging out or was affected by the changes to its environment. Seeing a gnarled, struggling plant can be defeating emotionally and that’s not what gardening is about.

Sure, it’s a tough call, but sometimes well worth the effort to give you more piece of mind when looking at your gardens.

Whatever you decide – aiming to save your “champion” with lots and lots of hands-on maintenance, or starting anew – know that your rosemary and so many others gave their all and that’s a very good thing.

Happy Memorial Day to everyone out there Diggin’ In.

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to