Cold weather heeby-jeebies

The temptation to get out my Felco pruners and my lopper and going to work on all my plants that have been damaged from the freeze. The soggy mushy crinums. The drooping brugmansia, the unattractive plumbago, even the perennial butterfly weed, its dry stems and brown rustling leaves that I think are very attractive, but  at the same time, I’m longing for the green to sprout.

Only a couple of things hold me back. One, if I cut off the damaged limbs and various appendages of my plants, it will be difficult for me to tell where the damaged part ends and the live part begins. If I cut into the green that might cause the plant to sprout during some warm days. That would be okay if there are no more cold snaps, but with our recent weather (it’s snowed twice this year) that would be hard to predict. If I do prune, the plants do sprout again and another cold period arrives, the sprouts will also be frozen and the entire plant may not recover.  I don’t know if we’re going to have another cold storm. We’re in mid-January. Spring generally starts here on the upper Gulf Coast in very late February or early March. But with this kind of weather, who knows what might happen. Additionally, the dead material will help insulate the plant until spring actually arrives.

In my vegetable garden, I covered my Brassicae (cabbages, brocolli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts) with frost cloth and a tarp, but I could just as well have covered them with ice cubes. When I checked on them Tuesday afternoon, they were stiff as a board and as brittle as thin glass.

What a surprise when on Thursday afternoon, after the worst had passed, they were not only thawed, but what I thought would be mush instead were tall and sturdy leaved, green and thriving plants. And they are all close to harvest.

The reason that Brassicas and other cold -tolerant plants can withstand lower temperatures is because of their sugar content. Cold-weather crops have more sugar in their cells. Sugar water has a lower freezing temperature than plain water. Plants that are not cold-hardy have much less sugar in their cells, so have a higher freezing temperature. When the water freezes and then thaws, it causes the cell walls to burst. Plants with higher than average sugar content have a much greater advantage surviving freezing temperatures. If you notice, many cold-weather plants taste sweeter after a freeze or frost.

Our roses didn’t seem to be very affected at all. Most of them are natives from the Great Plains, and are, I’m sure, used to cold weather. Even the Duchess de Brabant bloomed throughout the weather and looks totally unscathed. But the crinums, angel trumpets, Turk’s cap, and a host of other plants are going to have a struggle – if they survive at all.

I do plan to take my own advice (if I have the stamina, patience and intestinal fortitude) and wait until early spring to prune everything. But when I look at my once-beautiful plants, I feel like Dr. Strangelove, my hand uncontrollably drawn to my left-handed pruners instead of the “button.” I have been spending cold evenings in my garage, polishing, cleaning, oiling and sharpening them. Maybe it’s just the cold weather and a slight case of cabin fever – not me becoming a serial planticidal maniac.


Ragged gardens beginning to flourish after January Freeze

I think spring is finally here. At least with these much warmer temperatures, the outside chance of a very late frost has dwindled significantly.

The warmer temperatures are coaxing the many wildflowers into growth spurts. My numerous amaryllis and St. Joseph lilies are blooming non-stop and my Dutch iris blooms are already a memory. My 10-foot tall angel trumpet growth succumbed to the January freeze, but only the part above ground was affected. All of them have again sprouted from the roots, looking healthy and strong. I gave them a little slow release organic fertilizer to help them on their way.

The lion’s ear in my front yard had reached over six feet last summer, but it too froze back to the ground. It is now sending out sprouts, as are the four or five varieties of lantana, plumbago, night blooming jasmine, and Texas star hibiscus.

I did lose my ginger root plants (Zingiber officianale) …at least they’re not up yet. But my ginger lily (Hedychium sp.) is looking so well that I have already divided it.

Based on all that circumstantial evidence (also using the time-tested lore of budding pecan trees), I would venture to say that spring has arrived.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes a “Day of the Last Spring Freeze” map, which roughly corresponds to the U.S.D.A. Cold Hardiness Zone Map. The USDA map is the standard which gardeners and growers can use to find out which plants are most likely to thrive in a location.

Both maps draw a ragged line across Montgomery County. The jagged line, which runs southwest from Cleveland in the east to Magnolia in the west, currently divide Montgomery County almost in half. The northern part, which includes about three-fourths of Conroe, all of Willis, Cut and Shoot, Montgomery, and about half of Magnolia, is in Zone 8B. The southern part is in Zone 9A. The difference is that the area designated as 9A has become, on average, about 10 degrees warmer than the northern part of the line.

The southern part includes The Woodlands, Kingwood, New Caney, about a fourth of Conroe, Oak Ridge North, Shenandoah, Porter, about half of Magnolia and Spring. The line has two long prongs, one which stretches north almost to Lake Conroe, and another that almost reaches Dobbin Lake.

My plants can’t read maps, but they generally do know when the ground and ambient air is warm enough to stick their little green arms out of the ground. Sometimes, they might be surprised, but chances are, they’re not going to be this year.

So, you can start trimming back the dead parts of your plants. If you’re doing compost, the pruned parts make a great addition. Just make sure you cut all the hardwood stems into very small pieces or shred them.

Texas Earthkind  offers a great list of which ornamentals do well here, Hundreds of beautiful plants are featured.

In the vegetable garden, it’s almost too late to plant tomatoes, although if you’re brave enough, you can try. Early Girl tomatoes produce in about 55 days from the day you put them in the ground. That means, if you set them in today, they’ll be producing around the middle of May. Longer producing varieties may not produce until June. Then nighttime temperatures may have risen so high that the tomatoes will stop setting fruit.

Many people planted beans the first week of March and cucumbers the second or third week. Mine are about 8 inches high already, although my cucumbers just sprouted last week. The Montgomery Master Gardener website ( has a printable calendar on what vegetables to plant when.



You can start cleaning up your gardens now…perhaps

My yard is a ragged mess. Many of my plants were damaged by the hard freeze in January.  In years past, I have waited until March to begin pruning damaged vegetation, but the pecan tree outside my window has swollen buds. According to gardening folklore, pecan trees begin to bud after the last freeze has passed and spring weather is truly here. I’m not sure about that, but I have begun pruning already.

There are a number of plants which are designated “herbaceous perennials.” This means that although the part of the plant above ground dies back, the root system is still alive. They will sprout again from the roots if the roots have survived cold weather. There are many plants falling into this category. Hibiscus is one of those. I have only the two varieties of Texas Star hibiscus, red and white, but they have already begun to sprout from the base of the previous year’s growth.

Because of mild winters here, many plants can stand moderately cold weather, and short periods below freezing. However, hard freezes like the one we had in January, froze many of these back, leaving them brown, wilted, and, for the most part, just plain ugly.

All of my salvia has died back to the ground. I’m not worried though. Salvia has a strong root system and I see some sprouts already. Same thing with Turk’s Cap, both the small varieties and the “giant” varieties.

Thus, I’m pruning – a lot. Here are some chores you can do now to clean up your flower beds and gardens, and get ready for spring beauty. If you’re not sure whether a certain plant is a perennial or not, there are lists available from Texas A&M and other universities. You might also try Texas Earthkind – a compendium of annuals and perennials. Simply conduct an internet search for Texas Earthkind.

I’m a pretty ruthless pruner. If I do see growth from the root system, I will cut the dead part back to the ground. If I’m not sure, I take a pocket knife, and gently scrape off the first layer of bark or skin of the plant, about have the size of a little finger nail. If I see green under the scrape, that part of the plant is still viable, and you shouldn’t cut it back. For larger plants you may want to make several scrapes down the stem. That’s because the top of the stem may have died, but the bottom part of the stem is alive. I am pruning some of these back, but not all the way to the green. That’s because I’m still a little cautious. If I cut these below the green, they may sprout out there – and if there is another freeze, the sprouting plants may suffer. I’ll cut some of the dead parts off, but I’ll wait until March to cut the back to the green part.

Salvia, phlox, lantana, butterfly bush, Copper Canyon daisy, coneflower, Brugmansia, yarrow, tansy, gaura, Turk’s Cap, I generally cut back mercilessly to the ground. While I’m at it, the rock roses, Carolina jessamine, esperanza, and many other plants are going to get a good haircut.

Interestingly, my crinums were the first to go under the knife. If you’ve raised crinums, you know that they are pretty indestructible, but the tips of the blades will freeze, and the damaged ends will stick to the tips of adjoining leaves and then blacken. These I cut just below the blackened area, and it’s okay to do that now. Some gardeners cut them all the way back to the bulb, but I like to keep as much foliage as I can. I also pulled out dead blades which had fallen to the ground.

Some of my native irises suffered a bit of freeze damage. I just trimmed these back below the dead leaves. I did the same with daylilies.