Written by Kitty Angell, Montgomery County Master Gardener
It only comes about once a decade, but in the winter of 2012, it came. Several days of freezing mornings and cold days are very unusual for our area; however, we have been living through some of the coldest winter weather in many years.
As I was walking through our usually beautifully landscaped neighborhood, I was saddened to see so much devastation. I was even more saddened to see the yards that had been totally cleaned up, cut down, and clipped to the ground. Oh no! Didn’t they understand that we would get more cold weather (as we have experienced in the past week)? Pruning too soon signals plants to send out tender new growth, which is now even more vulnerable due to the recent frost.
Even though the dead leaves and branches look ugly, they serve as a buffer zone between what’s left of the plant and the cold air. Pruning should not begin until early March for most plants. This will give the plants time to seal off damaged tissue and prepare for new growth. When it is time to clean up the dead foliage, in most cases, you will be able to tell if there is still a living plant underneath.
Two possibilities exist for the Montgomery gardener in spring following a year like this one: Start over with new plants, or wait and see what is going to come up from the ground. With dead looking shrubs, wait until no more frost is forecast. You will soon be able to experiment by scraping a small section of cold-injured wood. If the layer beneath the bark is black or brown, it is
damaged and should be cut away. New growth will also direct where to prune, letting you cut back to ½ inch above the new buds. Most bulbs will be fine, and they should start sending up new
growth in mid-March. Roses can be pruned, as they are already starting to get new foliage.
The biggest problem lies with tropical plants. Will we have to start over with Gingers, Palms, Philodendrons, Banana Trees and Brugmansia? Only time will tell, but it is important to leave the dead leaves as protection. Bougainvillea and Plumeria that have been left outside are two plants that will suffer the most from cold, and it is doubtful that they will come back from this cold winter. Temperatures in the high teens may frost-damage Sago Palm leaves which turn yellow or brown. As long as the trunk and leaf crown is hard wood, it should recover. If the trunk turns soft, your sago may be damaged beyond recovery.
Citrus trees, if they are large, may only have peripheral branches that are browned and wilted. Don’t panic if you’re citrus trees drop leaves or some fruit. Dropping leaves is a sign the tree’s systems are working properly.
The impatient gardener will want to start over. If this is the case with you, sit down with paper and pen, sketch the layout of your garden and try to remember what was planted, and where. Those who keep a landscape diary will already have this information. For those plants that died this winter, consider replanting with a more cold hardy or native plant. Many of us are anxious to see what will come back to life and we are willing to watch and wait. Try not to prematurely uproot or remove living plants. There will be many plants to pick from after the threat of frost is gone.
For instance, in March, the Montgomery County Master Gardeners will hold their annual Spring Plant Sale at the Texas Agri-life Extension Center at 9020 Airport Road in Conroe. Before you go shopping, make a list of the plants you have researched, and know will grow well in your garden. Try not to be swept away by the beauty of a plant that has no chance to thrive in your yard. If you have questions regarding new spring plants and when to start planting, call the Master Gardeners at 936-539-7824. They answer the phones at the Extension Center from 9AM to Noon and 1PM to 5PM Monday through Friday.