Neil Sperry

Now that we’ve had our first freeze, here’s what should top your gardening to-do list

Remember how late it was cool back in April? And then to have the first killing freeze crazy early in October?

It may not have seemed like it as summer unfolded, but this was an unusually short growing season. Summer itself was longer than usual, but we really got cheated on the two good-weather growing times of spring and fall.

The best gardeners, however, learn from travails and never look back, so let’s do the same.

Where do we head now that we’ve been through a couple of nights with freezing temperatures? Here are the things that rise to the top of your list of responsibilities.

Trees and shrubs

Look closely for signs of weakened or dead branches and get them pruned out. If they’re above your head you’ll probably want to call in the pros. If they’re backed up because of recent storm damage and you’re willing to wait, do get on their list. Ice and snow can bring down compromised branches. So can spring winds once your trees start to leaf out.

If your trees’ roots are exposed above the soil this might be the time to do something about it. Do remember that most tree roots are in the top foot of soil, so don’t automatically think that exposed roots are a cause for concern. Nor do they suggest that there has been erosion. Roots grow larger as they age just as trees’ limbs will do, and that results in their swelling up and out of the soil. Resist the urge to add topsoil around them.

If one root is especially threatening to pedestrians or to your foundation, drive or walk, this is the best time to remove it. By doing so now you’ll give the tree six months to recover before the hot weather returns.

If you have a tree or shrub that is in the wrong place, and if you’d like to dig and relocate it, that needs to be done during the winter dormant season — that would be now since we’ve had that first freeze. Use a sharpshooter spade to sever the plant’s lateral roots. Be patient and lift the soil ball carefully as you move the plant to its new home. Set it at the same depth at which it was growing originally. Stake and guy it to hold it upright, and thin out the top growth to compensate for roots lost in the digging.

If you have shrubs that have become overgrown for their place in the landscape you can try pruning them back rather dramatically, but it would be better to wait until early February to do so. That would shorten the time that you’d have to look at bare branches before they filled back in.

Vines and groundcovers

Many of our best vines are of the spring-flowering categories, so wait to do any pruning to them. They develop their flower buds on growth they made the prior year, so pruning at any time from early August through the winter will definitely cut into production of flowers. Hold off on trimming those until after the bloom season has finished up next spring.

Evergreen vines and groundcovers, by comparison, can definitely be trimmed now to tidy them up. That would include plants such as Asian jasmine and purple wintercreeper euonymus. However, as with shrubs, if you intend to do anything major, save it for early spring just to avoid a scalped look all winter.

Annuals and perennials

Tidy up your color gardens as soon as it’s convenient.

Remove all winter-killed stubble and apply a fresh layer of mulch around all your perennials. If you have mums and fall asters, let them finish their flowering cycle, then cut them back to 1-2 inches from the ground. You’ll see clusters of new shoots starting to develop.

Those will become next year’s stems.

If you have spider lilies, fall crocus (Sternbergias) or oxblood lilies, they’ll all be producing their foliage now. Allow it to remain all winter. It will die away by mid- to late spring.

If you’ve just removed your summer color annuals that froze, this is the time to replace them with pansies and their smaller-flowering siblings, violas.

These are the most popular annuals in Texas gardens (largely due to the fact that there aren’t a lot of other annuals that bloom all winter long). Pinks and ornamental cabbage and kale are other good choices.

In more protected locations snapdragons and sweet alyssum are also excellent. All of these should be planted into highly organic, well-draining soils. They’re also excellent in containers that allow portability during extreme cold.


Keep mowing your lawn on through the winter. Unless you have overseeded with ryegrass or unless you have fescue as your permanent turf that won’t be necessary from late December into mid-February, but for the next six or seven weeks mowing will keep leaves picked up and weeds cut down. Mow at the same height that you’ve been using all season.

If you have an automatic sprinkler system, set it on the “Manual” mode for the winter so that you can determine those few times that it will need to run. There have been winters when our system has never run, but you also don’t want to let your turf and landscape plants go into cold spells dry. Damage will be much more severe when plants are desiccated. Be mindful, of course, of impending freezing weather so that you don’t coat hard surfaces in ice. “Smart” controllers will prevent that, of course, since they shut systems off at 38 or 40 degrees.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.

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