GARDENER'S MAILBAG: Addressing winter damage to plants

By Neil Sperry
Special to the Herald Democrat

I have been presented an unbelievable number of questions about winter damage following the February cold spell. I’m going to devote this entire column to the most common questions among them.

Dear Neil: The cold spell did a real number on our pittosporums. How should we handle them?

Probably by now you can see that the bark has split vertically (parallel to the sides of the stems). If so, that’s sure indication that the plants are lost. Unlike many other plants (oleanders, crape myrtles and others), pittosporums do not regrow from their bases or roots. I’ve had questions posted from all over the state about them being lost. They’re pretty risky when it gets really cold.

Dear Neil: We had several sago palms that are now very brown. How can we tell if they are going to come back?

Large Sago Palm Has Frozen And May Be Lost Unless New Growth Starts Up From Central Crown

You must wait. It all depends on whether the crowns of the plants survived the cold. The browned leaves won’t green up again, but your hope is that new green leaves will emerge from the centers of the plants. In all honesty, I have to warn you that thousands of sagos are going to end up being lost across Texas after this winter’s cold. They just weren’t hardy enough to handle the depth and duration of the cold.

Dear Neil: Our live oaks turned gray/brown with all the cold. I assume, since they’re native to a big part of Texas, that they will survive. The normally lose their leaves about this time of year. Is there any special care I need to give them?

Live Oak Winter Browning No Cause For Concern

Unless they had some other contributing factor going into the week of cold, live oaks will be fine. You’re correct – their native heritage has seen them through lots of tough times over the thousands of years, some probably even worse than this one. Keep your trees watered deeply and be prepared for them to shed all of these leaves (if they haven’t done so already). New growth should follow quickly.

Dear Neil: How far do I need to trim my Indian hawthorns and abelias that were hurt in the cold?

Twist Of Lime Abelia No Stem Damage Will Send Out New Leaves

Let them “tell” you. Odds are that they will put out new growth up and down their stems, and if that happens, almost no pruning may be needed. If you have any dieback, or if there are any erratic branches, those can easily enough be trimmed off with hand shears.

Dear Neil: My clumps of pampasgrass are crisp. How far back should I trim them, and what is the best way to do it?

Pampasgrass Freeze Damage Must Be Trimmed Back

Use a machete to cut the leaves back to 18 inches. Wear leather gloves, long pants and long sleeves, also goggles. Those blades are razor-sharp and their cuts are nasty. It’s very important that you do this trimming soon so that new growth will come up through the tufts of old stubble. If you wait until that new growth begins you’ll risk cutting the ends off the new leaves, and that will result in your having to look at the stubbed leaves all season.

Dear Neil: Our Asian jasmine turned brown. This is not the first time. I’m thinking about replacing it with purple wintercreeper euonymus, but I saw somewhere that it could become invasive. I don’t want to plant another kudzu. What is your experience with it? I see you recommend it here every once in a while.

I would never recommend any plant anywhere near as invasive as kudzu. Purple wintercreeper is a great groundcover that has served me very well in perhaps 10,000 square feet of bed space in our rural landscape. I use it in both shade and sun. I use a line trimmer to control its height and spread, and I probably only trim it two or three times each growing season. It’s a very “friendly” groundcover.

Dear Neil: Do you think St. Augustine lawns will be hurt by this winter’s cold?

We won’t know for several more weeks. It will depend on many things, including variety of St. Augustine (Raleigh is much more cold-hardy than Floratam, for example), vigor of the grass going into the winter, any snow pack in parts of the region where there was snow, etc. Just sit tight and wait and watch. Hopefully most lawns will come out of it intact, but in prior years when it’s been extremely cold we have seen damage.

Dear Neil: The leaves on my windmill palm have all browned badly. How soon will I know if the plants have survived?

Of course, the browned leaves will not green up again, but hopefully new growth will be produced out of the growing tips. It’s those central growing tips that are your real concern. Palms can be slow to respond. They need really warm weather, so be patient. You may not know for sure until late spring.

Dear Neil: I had a Meyer lemon tree growing in our backyard. It is in a somewhat protected spot, but that didn’t seem to help it this year. We got into the single digits for 24 hours. Will it come back?

If I had to guess I would not expect lemons to survive temperatures that cold. The dozens of photos I’ve had sent to me looked like the plants had been killed. We’ve just tempted fate by planting them too far north. However, you have nothing to lose by leaving it in place for a few more weeks. Scratch the bark to see if it’s both moist and green. That will be your indication of living internal tissues.

Dear Neil: I used frost cloth like I’ve seen you recommend. I couldn’t find the white type, so I bought a green brand instead. I lost most of the plants that I covered. Is it not as good?

Aspidistra Ucovered Protected By Frost Cloth Shown In Background

The darker color lets that frost cloth soak up too much of the sun’s warming rays each morning. Plants thaw out too rapidly and damage is done to their frozen tissues. I really prefer the white types.

Have a question you’d like Neil to consider? Mail it to him in care of this newspaper or e-mail him at mailbag@sperrygardens.com. Neil regrets that he cannot reply to questions individually.