If you ever had one of those experiences that left you asking, “What hit us?” well January was kinda like that to gardeners. Last year we had one really cold spell in early January and then it never got really cold again. This year was just the opposite. It got cold and it stayed there.
So let’s make some semblance of order out of the chaos. Let’s figure out where we go next. Here are your steps to recovery in the next couple of weeks.
First, let’s pretend we’re back in USDA Hardiness Zone 7. We got pushed into the warmer Zone 8 in the newest map in 2012, but many of those Zone 8 plants have suffered mightily in our cold winters since. As you’re replacing them this spring, concentrate your re-plantings on Zones 7 and 6 plants that will hold up to the cold. Limit the numbers of more tender types that you plant to smaller quantities.
Pampasgrass and Asian jasmine were both frozen by the cold. Both are normally evergreen, and both will ultimately survive this latest onslaught, but both need to be trimmed soon to remove all the browned foliage. Wear long sleeves, gloves and goggles when pruning pampasgrass. Its blades are razor-sharp. Trim the clumps back to 15 to 18 inches.
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As for the Asian jasmine, run your mower (on the highest setting) or line trimmer over it to trim off the browned top growth and to even up the planting. It will green back up with the first warm days of spring.
Live oaks are going to lose their leaves earlier than usual this year. The cold has turned many of them gray/brown and crisp. Not to worry, however. It takes more than this to do harm to a live oak. They’ll be back in business with new leaves and fresh growth in just a few weeks.
Transplanting needs to be finished as soon as you can. If you have trees and shrubs that you want to relocate from one part of your yard to another or out of nature into your landscape, it must be done while they’re dormant. That gives you only until mid- or late February to finish the task. Dig them carefully with a ball of soil intact around each of their root systems. Thin out their top growth to compensate for roots lost in the process.
Your first vegetable crops need to be planted immediately. Snap-type English peas, onions and asparagus roots are planted in late January or very early February. Choose healthy, vigorous bundles of onion sets and plant them shallowly. Don’t be surprised if 10 to 20 percent of them fall over after you water them. That means you’ve planted them properly.
Asparagus is a perennial vegetable that will stay in place for many years. It grows very tall, so plant it on the north side of your garden so it won’t shade your other plants. Give it 6 or 7 feet of ground space so it won’t encroach on your other crops.
Prune evergreen shrubs now to maintain their natural shape. The list would include junipers, waxleaf ligustrums and hollies. Use lopping shears to remove branches one at a time. Avoid the formally sheared look. If you’re pruning nandinas, trim the tallest half of the canes completely to the ground. They will send out new shoots from the plants’ bases, and that will keep them low and compact.
Prune deciduous summer-flowering shrubs such as crape myrtles and roses-of-Sharon now to maintain natural growth forms. Do not ever “top” a crape myrtle for any purported reason. It ruins the plants’ natural growth forms and it delays and disfigures their summer flowering.
Prune peach and plum trees immediately. Their buds start swelling with the first few warm days and it will soon be too late. Your goal is to have trees that are 9 or 10 feet tall and 16 to 18 feet wide. Their growth form when so pruned should be of a cereal bowl. Remove strongly vertical shoots, ideally maintaining three or four scaffold branches at 22 to 25 inches from the ground.
Some fruit crops require little or no pruning. That list includes pears. Pruning encourages vigorous regrowth, and that new growth would be highly susceptible to fire blight. Figs and pecans should be pruned only to remove dead or damaged branches. Apples are pruned only to remove strongly vertical shoots (“watersprouts”). Blackberries are pruned only after they finish producing, and then only to remove canes that have just borne fruit because they will never bear fruit again.
Grapes require the most extensive pruning. Your goal is to maintain the vines along strong supports, either a stout fence or arbor, or a sturdy wire trellis. Each winter, remove 80 to 85 percent of the cane growth to keep the vines manageable and also to limit the numbers of clusters of grapes that form on them. That will send all the moisture and nutrition into fewer grapes for a better fruit size and quality.
Finally, if you’re tired of looking at browned foliage and turfgrass, plant some frost-hardy annuals into your garden. Nurseries are receiving supplies of ornamental Swiss chard, larkspurs, Iceland poppies, sweet alyssum, petunias, stocks, wallflowers, snapdragons and a host of other nice sources of color. While extreme cold might still do them harm, these can stand frosts and light freezes. They’re well suited, for example, to patio pots and protected entryway gardens.
Neil Sperry hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.