Quick Tips

Assess your landscaping damage after the freeze

Snow has melted, rain has stopped, and it’s warm enough to venture out to see what’s still alive in your landscaping.

Before you prune back tree limbs or pull anything out of the ground, Texas A&M Agriculture Extension agent Larry Stein urges you to sit tight and wait a little while longer.

“Obviously, we’re going to have some kind of damage, but the extent of it won’t be known for a while,” said Stein, an A&M associate department head, professor and extension horticulturist. “We tell people to learn to like ugly. Basically, leave it ugly for a while … to give the plants time to recuperate and actually see the full extent of the damage.”

In a nutshell, trees, shrubs and other plants in your yard may not be as bad as they look.

Landscapers refer to Houston’s Gulf Coast as Zones 8 or 9 landscaping because of our more temperate climate and longer growing season. The past week’s weather obviously isn’t normal, so it’s tempting to go outside now that it’s a little warmer to assess the state of our trees and other plants — provided we’re not distracted by the damage of frozen or ruptured pipes.

Stein said that fruit-bearing trees such as citrus, fig, olive and avocado will likely have leaves that turn brown. If they were already in bloom, those blooms are lost; if not, it means the limbs will have better tolerated the cold.

Stein said that when the weather gets warm again, tree leaves will wither, turn brown and die. When withered leaves fall off a tree, that’s a good thing. If they wither and stick tight to the plant, then the branch is probably dead, he said.

Here are tips for assessing what’s left in your yard:

Flowers: If you left containers of more fragile flowers fully exposed, they’re probably a soggy mess and completely dead. The same goes for in-ground flowering plants such as impatiens, begonias, angelonias, pentas and ferns. Cut off or remove anything that’s a soggy mess. (I’ve had some pentas survive past frosts, so you might cut them back and see what bounces back.)

Hardy flowering bushes: Early March is when we can expect to be past the last frost, so wait until then to address plants such as lantana, hibiscus, esperanza, plumbago, oleander or firebush. Then, if you can scratch the plant’s surface and there is green underneath, it will be OK.

Plants such as angel’s trumpet may look a mess above ground, but their roots could still be good. You could trim these back to the base and let new shoots sprout from the roots. Azaleas and camellias that already had flower buds are likely damaged; the flowers may not survive, but the bushes themselves probably can.

Palms: If the plant still has green in the crown, you may be in luck. Instead of pruning, spray with a copper-based fungicide and repeat in 10 days. From March through September, apply palm fertilizer with trace elements every other month.

Roses: These are among the hardiest survivors, and we’re at the time of year when we’d prune them back for spring growth anyway. If you haven’t already, go ahead and prune and watch them flourish in weeks to come.

Fruit and nut trees: Wait to prune anything from these trees. If they had blooms, those blooms are dead and won’t produce fruit. After you can see what’s really dead on tree limbs, trim branches to about a half-inch above the part that has died.

“Wait and be patient,” Stein advised. “Then, as you start to see stuff not coming out, if you cut on a stem and you cut bark away and it’s brown underneath, that’s not good. It’s a telltale sign of damage.”

Olive trees that are fully dormant may be OK because, Stein said, they can take quite a bit of cold.

Peach and apple trees bloom earlier, and anything that already had blooms or the start of fruit have lost it.

As bad as the past week has felt, Stein said it is far from a worst-case scenario.

“We had two devastating freezes in Texas — in 1983 and 1989 — and they really hammered the lower valley. We’ll have damage (this year), but we should be OK,” Stein said.

Once you’ve cleared out the plants that did not survive the cold, consider it an opportunity to replace them with hardier substitutes.

If any of your fruit trees died, consider replacing them with a pear tree, Stein said. Two varieties that do well here are Kieffer and Orient pear trees, which pollinate each other. Put them in a sunny spot, let them get established and watch them grow.

Stein said that blackberry bushes are one of the most overlooked plants for Texas landscapers. There are several good varieties and a lot of them are thornless, for less painful harvesting. They don’t take much space, and their fruit makes a great jam.