The Upper Gulf Coast experiences occasional hard freezes each winter.  Every few years, we have a freeze that can last a few days to a week.  But Winter Storm Uri was a 100-year event.  This was crushing cold that exceeded any normal expectation.  We can expect more damage to our gardens than we see in our normal freezes, so we need a more thorough recovery protocol.

First and foremost, don’t rush!  Every local expert has been advising this since the freezing temperature lifted on Saturday, and with good reason.  Rushing into cleanup is tempting.  Our gardens look terrible, and human nature is to DO something to make things better.  But nature has her own mind, and sometimes slow and steady does win the race.  It really is best for your garden to exercise patience.

First step, triage:

  1. Remove all covers.
  2. Walk the garden and assess the damage.  
    1. Herbaceous plants and succulents that have mushy foliage should be tended to first.  
    2. Woody material such as trees, shrubs, and most fruits can wait.  In fact, you should wait for the best outcome.
    3. Visit the nursery to pick up:
      1. Copper fungicide, Consan, or your preference of organic fungicide
      2. Arbor Gate Food (a slow-release organic fertilizer (no water-soluble synthetics now, please)
      3. Soil Mender Foliar Plus or Liquid Seaweed
  3. Sharpen your hand pruners and get a pair of scissors.  That’s all you need for cleanup right now.  We’ll leave the heavier pruning for later.  
  4. Since you will be dealing with damaged plant material, get a spray bottle of isopropyl alcohol and spray your tools frequently while you work. 

Is it mushy?

Many herbaceous plants have fleshy foliage that will just melt to mush.  This material should be removed as soon as possible because it is a breeding ground for fungal disease.  Remove all you can using pruners or scissors, if needed.  

You want to allow sunshine and air circulation to reach the centers of the plants.  Some things just need to be cut back to the undamaged portion, like crinums.  Others, like herbaceous annuals, may need to be removed completely.  

If you see any signs of disease, or are concerned for the condition on the plant, apply a copper fungicide as you go.  This material can be composted if you wish.

Is it brown and crispy?

It is too early to be positive about the extent of the damage in woody plants and perennials.  Please try to be patient.  The true impact of the freeze will take weeks, maybe even months to be completely revealed.  

In general, it is a good sign if trees & shrubs lose their leaves soon after a freeze.  This means they are still alive and are shedding damaged leaves to make room for new growth.  When they do flush out, you will know what to cut back to.  

If woody plants retain their leaves for very long after a freeze, it is generally a sign that the plant is dead – at least the top portion.  But all is not necessarily lost.  There may be live tissue further down, and some plants are root hardy, even if the entire top is damaged.

When you do begin to prune the damaged portions, go slowly.  If the cambium layer – a thin layer of cells just under the bark – is alive, there is hope.  You can find this in two ways.

  1. Look at the cross-section of the pruned stems.  If there is a green ring just below the bark, this is living cambium tissue.  
  2. You can also do the “scratch test”.  Use your thumbnail or the edge of your pruners to remove enough bark to reveal the cambium layer.  If you see green, the tissue is still alive.

When you reach live material, stop pruning.  Allow the plant to begin new growth.  You can decide later if it needs additional shaping. 

If you don’t see signs of life, there is still one more chance.  If the plant is root hardy, it may push new growth from the base.  This may take several months.  In fact, I have seen cases where new shoots took as long as eight months to flush out!      

Citrus:

Don’t rush to cut back your freeze damaged citrus.  Like trees and shrubs, if it sheds its leaves, it may have a chance.  When you do cut back, work in layers.  If and when you hit live wood, stop.  If you have a living trunk and maybe a few stocky branches, you can have a full, producing citrus tree again in a year or two.  

If you don’t find signs of life until you are far down the trunk, or think the tree is dead all the way down, locate the graft and cut slightly above it.  (Note that not all citrus is grafted.)  The rootstock may be alive, especially if you banked it with soil or mulch, or insulated it.  If this pushes new basal shoots, your tree can be re-grafted.  Re-grafting may seem intimidating, but it is not as hard as you may think, and you can take advantage of that well-developed root system.

Temperate Fruits:

If your trees were in bloom at the time of the freeze, those blooms have been killed.  This event had temperatures below the limit where we could expect fruit tree blossoms to survive regardless of stage of openness.  If you had tight, still dormant buds, there is a chance that your tree may bloom again.  It is not guaranteed, but it is possible.  You may not have fruit this year, but with regular maintenance and care, the trees themselves should recover.  

Worst case scenario is if you see split bark on the trunk.  This means that freezing temperatures penetrated the trunk and deep into the tissue.  Most trees will not recover from this.  You can wait and see but expect more failures than successes.  Don’t be tempted to use tree paints on the fissures.  They have a better chance of healing if you just treat with the fungicide and let them initiate their natural wound response.   

It would not be unusual to see a fruit tree leaf out, look like it is on the mend, and then wilt, turn brown and crash altogether.  This occurs when a tree is badly damaged, but not killed outright.  It tries to push out new growth, but just doesn’t have the energy to support itself.  If this happens, don’t take it too hard.  It is not anything you did, and you couldn’t have prevented it.

The Veggie Garden:

A few very hardy winter veggies are likely to have survived, but many will fall into the “Is it mushy?” group.  Remove any vegetable that has not recovered within 48 hours of the freeze.  Don’t put more effort into trying to save something than it would take to replace it.  Onions can be salvaged by cutting back the damaged tops.  Don’t go farther than you need to.  They may not end up as large as they would have been, but you will still have onions.  If your potatoes were just planted, they should be fine.  If leaves were just starting to emerge, they may still be salvageable.  The exposed foliage will turn black and mushy.  Remove all of this, checking below the soil level.  Mulch them well.  If new growth emerges, they will be fine.  If your plants were nearing harvest, don’t try to save the tops.  Harvest the tubers that have already developed.  Small potatoes are still wonderful fresh from the garden.

For all plants:

After you have done your initial cleanup, it is time to give plants the resources they need during their recovery.  Apply foliar feed to everything with foliage.  This gives a quick mineral boost and reduces stress.  Fertilize with Arbor Gate Food, a slow-release organic fertilizer, following all directions for application rates.  It is not a good idea to push stressed or damaged plants with water-soluble synthetics.  Slow-release organics replace nutrients in the same way nature does – available when the plant needs them but not pushing growth artificially.

For you:

Nothing is more dismal for a gardener than looking out over a sea of brown.  Visit the nursery and pick up some color plants and colorful veggies.  Put them in where you can see them from your windows, or as you travel from your vehicle to the door – even if this is not where you would normally plant them.  This will give you a lift and help you wait until things begin to leaf out.  The weather is prime for having a beautiful spring, and our gardens will be back soon.

Written by Angela Chandler Angela Chandler is a lifelong gardener with a passion for learning and teaching. She tends a ½ acre garden in Highlands, Texas that includes ornamentals, fruits, a small experimental nursery, a flock of Buff Orpington chickens, and a Lab mix named Harley. Her gardening adventures would not be possible without her husband, Fred – always willing to help unload leaves, compost and help build beds. Angela is a member of the Harris County Master Gardener Association – Retired, and a member of the Garden Writer’s Association.