At Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the bluebonnets are well on their way to blooming—but all around them, you’d hardly know that the first day of spring is just two weeks away. “It looks like winter. There’s more brown now than there was before; it was fairly green,” says the center’s director of horticulture, Andrea DeLong-Amaya, referring to the terrain before February’s freeze. After the winter storm brought record low temperatures and encased plants in ice for days on end, she says, “some of the evergreen plants that I’ve never seen turn brown have turned brown.” In the Gardens at Texas A&M University, the scene is equally bleak: “Our creeping fig, butterfly vine, yellow bells, and blue plumbago have all died back to the ground,” says director Michael Arnold, a professor of landscape horticulture. And in Central Texas, certified arborist Maggie Ambrosino has seen no shortage of trees split in half.
As home gardeners fret over flattened cacti and blackened bushes, what do the experts prescribe? Patience, mostly. All the botanists who spoke with Texas Monthly agreed that it’s too soon to tell the extent of the storm’s toll on our local flora—and in most cases, it’s too early to act as well. “The idea for the next few months is to ‘learn to love ugly,’” says Arnold. “That sounds a bit harsh, but many plants in our landscapes have sustained considerable damage, and many may resprout if we are patient.” So now is not the time to start throwing out unsightly foliage, for the most part. Below, the garden gurus break down the difference between repairable damage and rotting decay, explain what to do now, and help us prepare for future bouts of inclement weather—and the welcome relief of spring.
Learn how to gauge a plant’s condition.
“With shrubs, trees, and woody vines, we can often begin to assess damage in a few ways,” Arnold says. “Twigs should still be pliable or springy. Damaged leaves should be shed naturally if the stems remain undamaged—a twig with dead leaves that do not drop naturally is a bad sign.” And a simple scratch or cut test can reveal the depth of damage. “Lightly scratching twigs or making a small cut on the lower branches on shrubs can reveal if the stem is still alive.” If you see green, great. If you see brown …
Practice patience: don’t prune everything.
“If you can wait to cut back anything that you think has been frost-damaged, it’d probably be a good idea to just wait,” DeLong-Amaya says. “As the plants leaf back out over the spring, you can see how far back the plants have died.” By then, if the tips of a plant haven’t rebounded, you can usually cut back to healthy growth. In the meantime, she says, “foliage that’s on the plant currently, even if it’s dead, can help insulate the plant from any future freezes that we might have.”
In College Station, Arnold has a similar approach. “We did take a major hit to our rosemary plantings and Indian hawthorns,” Arnold says. “They may need to be replaced, but again, we will give them a few weeks to see if new growth emerges.” He warns that in general, pruning away damaged parts now may also stimulate new growth, which gardeners should avoid until the danger of frost is beyond us.
Mushy vegetation is the exception: it’s safe to remove.
DeLong-Amaya has an exception to the wait-it-out strategy: “If it’s wet and mushy and rotting, that’s stuff to take out”—but only the squishy parts, not the whole plant. She says many agave and prickly pear cacti, for example, “are piles of mush, but I think that there’s a very good chance that they’ll just grow back from the bases. A lot of the agaves have outer leaves that were frozen, but the center part might be alive and fine. It’s going to take a year or two before they start pushing out more leaves and looking like a normal agave.”
As for cool-weather annuals that didn’t make it, Arnold suggests clearing them out now to get a head start on sowing spring varieties. “Damaged cole crops—cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts—contain high amounts of sulfur-containing compounds and tend to stink as they decay,” he notes. “We removed ours and prepared those areas for spring vegetable crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and musk melons, which will be planted within the next few weeks.”
Leave the trees alone.
“I’ve seen several trees just completely split in half, and a lot of that is due to poor pruning,” Ambrosino says, referring to the bad practice of removing too many limbs and not ensuring an equal distribution of branches. “Proper pruning is really a good defense against the weight of that ice sitting there for long periods of time.”
For almost any type of tree damage, she recommends that Texans “sit back and wait, and have a certified arborist do a health prune in mid-June to February.” (You can find one near you through the International Society of Arboriculture’s online directory.) For now, she says, we should see new growth return to leafless limbs around Easter, unless the branch has been completely damaged. Live oaks that may appear to have oak wilt disease could just be frost-damaged: though they usually drop some nonviable leaves this time of year (to make way for better-performing foliage), many will drop 90 to 100 percent of their leaves, Ambrosino guesses, thanks to the freeze. You may also notice splitting bark on tree trunks—another form of frost damage, particularly on mountain laurels. Again, give them time to heal naturally.
Brown palm fronds are the exception: they’re dead and can be removed.
Practice good tree hygiene year-round.
Even without inclement weather, Ambrosino warns that stressed trees are more susceptible to diseases, including insect infestation. Routine care helps. From time to time, aerate the tree’s drip line, which is the area beneath a tree’s branches (she recommends plug aeration over spike aeration), and spread on a thin layer of compost to fill the plug holes and add nutrients to the soil. Every couple of weeks, water the trees deeply. “Probably 95 percent of problems with trees are correlated to water—either not enough or too much.” Trees like to get their feet wet, but not continuously, so it’s best to avoid planting anything at their base that requires constant watering.
Determine whether you want to plant for spring now—or later.
“You can be planting already,” says DeLong-Amaya, who reports that the wildflower center staff plants throughout the winter.
And for gardeners who are never sure when to get started this time of year, Arnold explains his process: “Here at the gardens, we are about 50 percent frost-free on March 1 and about 90 percent frost-free by April 1. Personally, I tend to take a look at the long-range forecast a week or so after the average frost-free date, and if the coast looks clear I will go ahead and plant.” If the forecast shows a possible frost, he’ll wait or plant only hardier crops. “Ironically, the freeze taking out some of our typical cool-season vegetables might make me gamble on getting a head start, since the space is open earlier in the garden than it might be in a typical year.”
When you replace damaged plants, opt for varieties that thrive in your zone.
When you’re shopping for new plants, consider native species or adapted varieties, which will be more resilient during inclement weather. “While I refuse to give up the fun of growing something new, marginal, or risky in the landscape,” Arnold says, “one lingering impact of this recent freeze will be keeping an eye to more cold-hardy cultivars and species for the backbone locations in our garden.”
And don’t forget that winter isn’t over.
“It was sort of fortuitous that we had the snow, because even though we think of the snow as being cold, it actually insulated the plants from the extreme cold,” DeLong-Amaya says. “Everything that was flat on the ground and covered with snow survived a lot better than some things that might have been poking out of the snow and more exposed to the colder temperatures.”
Speaking of counterintuitive, she explains what to do if temperatures dip below 32 degrees again this month: “If we haven’t had rain and your plants are dry, go ahead and water. Plants that are well hydrated are going to be able to deal with the cold or any other stressors better.”