March 1, 2021
Freeze-dried Gardens: Mayhem, Mush, or Marvelous Comeback?
Feeling a little bleak?
Don’t despair: Nature is here! Spring starflowers shook off the snow and popped right back up.
Dandelions were fresh as daisies under their wintry blanket. Surviving bees and other tiny pollinators can sure use them since our gardens are indeed food deserts right now.
But yes, our usual spring cleanup takes a dramatic detour after a record-breaking 144 consecutive hours below freezing, including lows to 7 and 9 degrees. Will our plants make it through Snowvid 2021? Some will and some won’t. For many of them, only time will tell. Right now, we’ve got to step away and let them heal.
Factors that impact plant survival and recovery
• How well established (new plantings will suffer most)
• Location (northern or southern exposure, hilltop, slope, proximity to house, stone walls, etc.)
• Soil moisture (sadly, soil was very dry before the freeze)
• Plant health
• Plant origin
• Cold hardiness
Our rollercoaster weather didn’t help. In other areas of the country, plants acclimate to ever-colder temperatures in winter. Instead, we yo-yo from warm days in the 80s to freezing temps and back into the 80s. Many plants didn’t even go truly dormant and were blooming just the week before, like these now-blackened shrimp plants.
Two weeks after snowfall, now we’re showered with falling leaves from mountain laurels, yaupon hollies, and native live oak trees (among others). Live oaks were soon to shed, anyway. Long-term damage may not evident right away, so keep an eye on popping or splitting bark. For now, only prune off broken limbs.
Freeze-dried: Most likely we’ll lose mountain laurel’s fragrant spring sensation—those fluffy purple flowers that waft grape Kool-Aid scents across town. Still, we could still be surprised!
My native Mexican plum was a few days away from flowering. Although the cycle was interrupted, the tree should be fine.
You can check woody plants with the scratch test, a trick my dad taught me long ago. Crape myrtles, viburnums, and others can be harmed by extreme cold. Scratch the bark with your fingernail to see if it’s green underneath.
My pineapple guava showed green, but I’m not taking that to the bank just yet. In any case, evergreen leaves on many plants will look blanched and fall off.
No clue how the bay laurel will fare.
Roses look pretty awful. Many will make it just fine. My Lady Banks rose could sure tell you stories, so I hope this one isn’t the last! For now, avoid pruning until you see new bud growth.
Rosemary and lavenders are probably history, but my oregano is fine.
Most likely we’ll have to start over with citrus plants, but we’ll know better soon. Grafted plants may return on their sour orange rootstocks, so replace them.
Lawn grass took a hit. Again, we’ll have a better idea in a month or so.
Native plants that were dormant anyway should be fine, though cultivars of natives may not be so hardy. We were going to cut them back this month anyway. My native skeleton-leaf goldeneye is now gray instead of slightly dormant two weeks ago.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center now advises to leave the browned foliage: “If we have a light freeze in early March, that ‘unsightly’ foliage can protect rosettes + roots (and help shelter wildlife). Wait until you start to see buds swell on the stems or new growth coming from the base of the plant before you ‘tidy up’ (in about a month).”
We may have to cut our native Barbardos cherry shrubby trees to the ground. I’ve had to do it before and they returned just fine. Others haven’t been so lucky: location, location, location! Wait for now.
The Wildflower Center reports that bluebonnets are fine, appreciative of the moisture as they spurt towards opening day. My native baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) look to be on target for March/April blossoms.
Golden groundsel (Packera obovata) couldn’t wait to get the bloom show rolling! This native, evergreen perennial usually attracts tiny pollinators to its golden flowers.
Coneflowers are fine. Native asters are pumping out rosettes against undaunted native spiderwort.
Texas sedges look a tad burned but that’s also from summer’s heat and drought. They benefit from a light shearing in spring, anyway. Spuria iris are felled, though the rhizomes may be fine.
My Yucca pallida appears unscathed, but the prognosis is still out on Mediterranean silver bush germander (Teucrium fruiticans). It’s looking worse every day. Fortunately, it’s a fast grower if I decide to get another.
Many agaves will suffer, like my Agave celsii. According to Mary Irish in her book Yuccas, Agaves, and Related Plants, it has withstood 12° in eastern Texas. The center cores seem firm to me, but it’s still early days.
Some say to avoid pruning off the mushy leaves in order to protect the core during these unpredictable March weather days. Others say to remove them before they get really disgusting! Whatever you do, wear long gloves if you have any sensitivity to the toxic sap.
Agave striata and A. bracteosa are fine in their containers, even though their hardiness is rated at 15°.
Mushy prickly pears won’t recover, but you can cut off firm pads to start over. Let them dry out for a few days. For now, pot up into containers with well-drained, gritty soil and keep warm.
In 2010 after a 17° hit that January 9th, Jeff Pavlat from the Austin Cactus and Succulent Society joined us with tips about freeze damaged cactus, aloe, and agave plants. Watch his on-target tips.
He compiled this list of various succulents and their cold tolerance range, noting that many factors contribute to a particular plant’s survival.
Tropicals, subtropicals, and native plants just outside their hardiness zone may or may not return. Avoid cutting back right now. Firecracker fern, native to Mexico, may come back, but it will take time. Some of mine never recovered from the 2017 freeze.
If plants are mushy, like my spuria iris, daylilies, and crinums, you can cut them back.
Palm trees: Texas natives like Sabal minor and Sabal texana should be fine. Others may not make it. Wait to see new growth, but it could take months.
Cycads, also called sago palms, may make it back, but again, it will be months.
Nurseries are compiling information and lists as fast as they can, so check in with them. Here is just one, an extensive list compiled by Backbone Valley Nursery in Marble Falls. Note that this is just a guideline and that your experience may vary.
Last week, I attended an excellent webinar, “Backyard Gardens Winter Storm Recovery,” presented by a team of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension specialists and experts. Watch it here for their statewide perceptions.
And about the nipped Leucojums and blooming Algerian iris as freezing weather hit? Look at them now!
Thanks for stopping by! Linda