COVID was a pain in the aster (and the arm).  The snow and ice were pretty for a few pictures, then a non-electric mess.   And the Big Freeze was nothing short of devastating for our precious plants and landscapes.  The brown carnage was a sight to behold.   Plants from balmy Southeast Asia, like azaleas, camellias, gardenias, Indian hawthorns, and roses took it on the chin.  It wasn’t pretty, and much of it still isn’t.  Chain saws and loppers are still at work.  I expected the live oaks to be injured, but the biggest surprise of all to me was the damage to our native deciduous oaks, particularly post oaks, southern red oaks, and water oaks.  Who would have thunk it?

But spring in nature and the garden has always been about magic and rebirth.   Plus, we gardeners invented making chicken salad out of chicken poo.  It’s our job, our mission, and our calling.  No matter how ugly it gets, we will make it pretty again.

Thank goodness for the thick cover of snow before the super cold temperatures as it provided an amazing amount of insulation and freeze protection.  Many plants were still alive at the snow line and ground level.  Even plants that I expected to die, like sago palms, survived by hiding beneath a white pillow.  I love hearing folks get excited about new sprouts coming up from what appeared to be lifeless plants.

With only a few exceptions, native plants that evolved here over thousands of winters survived and revived on schedule.   My pollinator pocket prairie was as pretty as ever, starting the annual show with Baptisia alba.  I started with a single plant years ago, then divided the clump and have let it reseed over the years.   I’m trying to seed it into my longleaf pine savanna now.   I don’t think I had any idea when I first read about Johnny Appleseed as a child that I would later become him! I do lead a seedy lifestyle.

Many roses uniquely adapted to the South, like teas, Chinas, Noisettes, Banksias, and such were frozen to the ground.  But after cutting away the deadwood they are recovering quickly and will be nice again by fall.   I am a backsliding rosarian these days whose “rose garden” is a full-time chicken yard and pear orchard now.  I haven’t had time to replace any dead roses, but at least the crinums are alive and thriving.  I have a thing for rambling roses and they did a fair job of surviving the Arctic blast.  My ‘Bleu Magenta’ rose suffered almost no damage and produced a showy crop of spring flowers.   I moved my ‘Veilchenblau’ away from the entrance gate of the chicken yard to the far corner of my former vegetable garden (also now a full-time chicken yard!) so the sprawling branches would have more room to show and wouldn’t get in Mrs. G’s way by the gate.   Mrs. G LOVES her pet chickens more than roses!

Cool-season annuals from Europe such as pansies, violas, poppies, and larkspur weren’t fazed by the cold and made their usually colorful spring show.   I especially love “bunny bloom” (single) larkspur (a Texas Superstar® selection) and have spread it to our school garden at the Caldwell Arts Academy in Tyler.   I figure every kid needs a peek at the Easter bunny hanging out in a small flower.  Native bees love pollinating them as well.

Speaking of bees, all the rainfall and cooler than normal weather have caused my white Dutch clover (Trifolium repens) to thrive.   I didn’t plant it, but love having it in my lawn areas.   In addition to producing somewhat showy white flowers, it also requires no fertilizer, adds nitrogen to the soil, and provides nectar for honeybees, native bees, and butterflies.   I would never think of spraying it with herbicide and mow it once a week along with the grass.  Hot summers typically send it into dormancy with fall, winter, and spring bringing it back to life each year.

My “dumpster bed” at work has turned into a mini floral jungle and provides daily inspiration and entertainment to me and others working in our not-so-glamorous Cotton Belt Building in Tyler.   It’s not an attractive part of town so even a tiny spot of color decorating the dumpster is a welcome sight.   I literally love plucking weeds and sprinkling seeds there.   The three ‘LaMarne’ polyantha roses (an Earth-Kind® selection) froze to the snow line, but after cutting them back they are blooming again at one-third their previous size and by fall will look normal again.  I need some height on them so they can peek out above the larkspur, poppies, old-fashioned petunias, and purple Queen Anne’s lace in the spring and the zinnia, cosmos, periwinkles, and bachelor buttons in the fall.  Everything in this bed is either a perennial or a reseeding annual and no pesticides are used so I can enjoy the plethora of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators that amazingly find their way to it.  If you don’t like the jumbled “cottage garden” look (Mrs. G doesn’t)  you might think my little dumpster bed is a floral dumpster fire, but having it right outside my office window in front of the dumpster is beyond comforting to me.  If it’s “jungle out there” it can at least be pretty.

Sadly my bluebird nest boxes at work produced no inhabitants this year other than some persistent invasive European house sparrows that I had to repeatedly evict.  Their messy nest full of grass and urban trash is unmistakable.  My beloved eastern bluebirds took a hard hit in the Big Freeze with countless numbers of them actually freezing to death.   I was horrified to have to toss out dead bodies from my nest boxes where they tried to seek shelter.  Out of my 20 (down from my former 120!) nest boxes at the farm, I still haven’t produced a single brood of baby bluebirds this year.  I had one lonely male warbling for a mate but still no females or active nests.  I hear some and see some each day so; they’ll build up numbers and be back.   I’m used to hearing bluebirds first thing when I walk out the door each morning.  They truly are the “songbird of happiness”.  I did manage to produce a few nests of Carolina chickadees and was happy to host them.  I leave the light on for any native cavity dwellers and usually have about a quarter each bluebirds, titmice, chickadees, and flying squirrels.  It’s a special treat when I get brown-headed nuthatches.   I’m a nut for those too.

Written by Greg Grant Greg Grant is an award-winning horticulturist, conservationist, photographer, and writer from Arcadia, Texas. Each month he writes an article for The Arbor Gate Blog where he is given free range to write about any topic that interests him. During the week, he is the Smith County horticulturist in Tyler for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and on the weekends, he and his wife tend Greg’s grandparents’ old farmhouse, his Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary, a flock of laying hens, one Jack Russell, and three cats.