McLennan County Master Gardener Tom Burr has a single word of advice to gardeners and homeowners fretting about brown plants and landscapes after February’s intense cold snap: patience.
And for those uncomfortable with seeing brown as a spring color, he has a corollary. “Learn to love ugly,” he said with a chuckle.
The 77-year-old Burr, a Master Gardener with Texas A&M Agrilife Extension since 2012, used a recent walk around his Woodway home’s grounds to show that brown is not the last word for plants this spring.
February’s severe cold snap not only was intense with a near-record low of -1°, but prolonged, with a record-setting 205 consecutive hours below freezing. That combination has turned plants, grass and shrubs brown, with trees and bushes showering lawns with dead leaves.
For some trees and large plants, damaging weather also hit the month before with a 4.4-inch snowfall that snapped branches and stems. Fallen trees and branches along the 300-foot wooded drive to Burr’s and his wife, Barbara’s, house, in fact, almost shut them in until helpful neighbors joined to clear their road. The Burrs’ 9-acre tract has a view of Lake Waco is a designated wildlife habitat.
After January’s damaging snow, February’s sustained deep cold hit plants in beds around his home and the adjoining woods, making brown the predominant color. The master gardener, however, advises growers to look closer before making decisions to cut or uproot:
Look for the green. While the outer leaves and stems of his red tip photinia look dead, tiny green leaves in the core of the plant signal there is still life there. The same goes for a spreading rosemary bush normally sensitive to deep cold, where inside branches have green as well.
Bend the branch. A stem or branch that breaks when flexed likely is dead, but one that bends with slight pressure suggests the plant is still alive. The leaves of a tall Japanese ligustrum shadowing his house are all brown, with hundreds more carpeting the ground underneath, but limber limbs and stems likely mean this tree has survived. Even if a plant’s stem is brown and brittle down to soil level, it may just be normal winter die-off, with fresh growth appearing as the weather warms.
Scratch the stem or trunk. For a wooded plant, scratch the outside of a stem or the trunk to see if there is a green or yellow layer just under the surface. If so, the plant’s brown exterior is likely freeze damage.
Trust the natives. Burr said native species, such as Texas mountain laurel, a fragrance-free coral honeysuckle and most salvias, usually are hardy to weather extremes. Sometimes, that is not a good thing. A green string of thorny smilac, also known as brambles, in the woods is a notoriously stubborn species. “Freeze doesn’t bother it a bit,” he said.
Wait and wait some more. There is a lot of brown in Burr’s gardens that he is not sure about. Roses, a leopard plant, almond verbena and others got a “we’ll see” as he walked past.
He said home growers should give brown plants the benefit of the doubt after last month’s landmark freeze, avoiding typical responses such as extra watering or severe pruning.
“The word to remember is patience,” he said. “That, and learn to love ugly.”
Burr said the McLennan County Master Gardeners’ website offers sound growing and gardening tips, as does a free monthly newsletter available through the website or the group’s Facebook page.
Time and patience also are advised by Westview Nursery and Landscape Co.’s Keith Houck, who with his brother, Gregg, owns and runs the Waco nursery that their grandfather started.
“It’s a waiting game,” Houck said.
A gardener might give a brown plant or shrub up to 45 days to show signs of life. Cutting back dead vegetation, light fertilizing and some watering may help, but time is really what is necessary, Houck said.
The February freeze was a historic one for the veteran nursery owner.
“It’s probably the worst we’ve ever had, and I’ve been in the business 67 years,” he said. “There’s gonna be a lot of stuff killed.”
Gardeners and home landscapers likely will find the waiting does not end with the plants in their garden or yard. Houck said nurseries may not be able to meet statewide demand for plants, seedlings and grass sod for several weeks.
“Growers didn’t lose a lot, but it’s a supply and demand thing,” he said.
With an anticipated increase of customers wanting to replace vegetation killed by the cold, possibly three to five times the usual spring numbers, nurseries and other suppliers may exhaust their supplies and have to look elsewhere.
“We may have to go to Florida, Louisiana or California,” he said.
Houck’s sod suppliers still are waiting to see if their grass wakes up from winter dormancy or if some of it has been killed off by the cold. Even if they dodge the bullet of damage, clamor from homeowners and landscapers for replacement grass will stretch supplies.
“The grass situation is tough,” he said. “There’s probably going to be a shortage.”