The answer? Bagworms!
When we got home from our European vacation and were greeted by a brown evergreen shrub in our front yard, I immediately Googled "What killed my evergreen?" and got the answer quickly.
A bagworm lives in its little silk pouch which it covers with foliage from whatever tree it has attacked, most likely of the evergreen variety. It sort of looks like it's part of the tree. Really clever camouflage that totally fooled me (I am a weak predator). In fact, when I first saw these little pouches appearing on the evergreen that died nearly a year later, I thought they were really ugly, so I started picking them off. Then I feared that they were parts of the tree essential to its growth -- some kind of weird, mutant seeds -- so I stopped picking them, and then they started multiplying like bunnies. They reach maturity in mid summer, right when they decided to destroy our evergreen once and for all.
A couple weeks before leaving for Europe, I said to Matt, "There's definitely something wrong with that tree, right?" He agreed as we watched it slowly turn brown.
If only at that moment I'd Googled, "What is killing my evergreen?"
If only I'd realized at the time how odd it was that these little pouches appeared to be moving and seemed to be able to fly through the air, showing up on our home's brick exterior or our slate retaining wall or one of our flowers. Now that I know these pouches were moving and migrating because they had worms inside them, it kind of makes my skin crawl.
So, the morning after returning home from Europe, when we could see in daylight the pathetic brown remnants of ourshrub, Matt's first home task was to dig up the evergreen and chuck it to the curb just in time for the day's trash pick up (he got it to the curb about 15 minutes before the truck carted it away!). Then we picked up some organic pesticide specially designed for dealing with critters such as bagworms and sprayed the area where the tree once stood and where it left in its wake thousands of bagworm eggs.
Now, over one month later, the area where that sad evergreen once stood is completely bare, but at least it also appears to be free of all bagworm remnants. We're waiting until the fall to plant something new in its place, most likely something of the evergreen variety. All in all, this was a good learning experience, namely, when something in the yard seems odd, it probably is, and I should Google it sooner rather than later. For what it's worth, I never liked this evergreen much to begin with, and it was the last piece of landscaping that survived from our home's previous owners.
But before I think about what to plant this fall, let's all take a minute to reflect on the sad life of a female bagworm: after she lays her eggs, she dies immediately.