I've begun my radio programs the past several weeks by saying, "If your question begins with 'Neil, my plant's leaves have all turned brown ...,' there's probably no reason to call me. It's almost guaranteed that you've let it get too dry at least one time this awful summer." I can't believe that I've actually said that, or that I've discouraged anyone from calling, but those are just words that are falling from everyone's lips right now. It would make for really redundant radio.
Since I know that so many people are concerned with the same critical questions, I've decided to share those specific questions that keep coming up day after day.
Will plants that have turned completely brown come back?
That depends on the species, and it depends on the care you give them from this point forward. Many large trees, especially native woodland trees, have shut down for the season. Their leaves are yellowed or brown, almost as they would turn two months from now. Most of those large trees will survive to grow another year. The old, mature ones have seen years like this before -- back in the 1950s, in 1980, in the late '90s and in 2005-2006. Those were all bad times.
Landscape trees and shrubs, especially those that don't have well-developed root systems, may be in more jeopardy. I've seen Leyland cypress, magnolias, elaeagnus, hollies, ligustrums, Asian jasmine, wintercreeper, Indian hawthorns and boxwood among many others that look like they've been lost.
Crape myrtles and nandinas are typically a bit more resilient. Many of them are completely brown, but most of them will eventually recover if they're given water soon.
A critical tip in dealing with any woody plants that look like they might be dead: Don't rush to a conclusion. If you have any doubts about their status, leave them in place until the normal time for them to leaf out next spring.
Will my lawn come back to life? It looks so brown in big areas.
This one depends on the grass and the real cause of its browning. In most cases, St. Augustine that has turned completely brown will not come back and will need to be replanted. It does not have rhizomes (underground runners). If the blades and the stolons (above-ground runners) are dead, the grass has been lost, whether to simple drought or because of complications of drought mixed with chinch bugs. Bermuda, on the other hand, does have rhizomes and usually will come back from severe droughts if we begin to get rain or if you begin irrigating. It's surprising how resilient it can be, and the good news is that you can stay within water restrictions as it recovers. It really won't take that much.
Should I fertilize my lawn, even though the weather is still hot?
Yes. The early-fall feeding is the most important one you will do all year. It encourages regrowth as the weather improves. It also strengthens the grass for the winter, and it will help it off to an earlier start next spring. Use a quality all-nitrogen fertilizer for most clay soils, and a 4-1-2 plant food for sandy soils. Half or more of the nitrogen in either type should be in slow-release form. Timing should be the first week or two of September in North Texas.
Applying it later in September is better than not applying it at all, but you would lose some of the benefits of encouraging regrowth yet this fall.
Does the continuing hot weather move the suggested date for applying pre-emergent weed killers back?
Perhaps, but probably not by much. You would want to apply a granular pre-emergent for grassy weeds as well as a second product for broad-leaved weeds. The applications should be made back-to-back (two passes over the lawn), but don't try to combine the products in the hopper of your fertilizer spreader. Water lightly after you apply them. The optimum time for the applications is usually the first 10 days of September. Those dates might shift back by a week or 10 days, but probably not much later. It's better to be a little early than a day late. Once the weed seeds have sprouted, the pre-emergents will not be effective.
This has been an extraordinary year. Cold weather, ice, heat and drought have made it tough to be a plant in a North Texas landscape. If you're needing specific help or assistance, this is a great time to get to know a Texas Master Certified Nursery Professional. His or her advice will be timely and reliable. Look for their name badges and emblems, often at independent retail garden centers.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.