By Ellen Peffley
West Texans are hardy and resilient folk, but our plants are not always as resilient. What a year we have had!
Looking back to last summer with its lingering drought, a warm December and January and then the February Deep Freeze, West Texas weather has been hard on us. Many plants were already weakened because of the drought; many budded out far earlier than usual in January and then were subjected to the historic, prolonged, bitter deep freeze with temperatures far below freezing that lasted for days and days – a lethal combination for many plants.
Some plants made it fine through the freezes, but other plants did not. Not knowing if plants have made it through to spring is unsettling and has left many gardeners wondering if their plants are living or dead.
Trees that were still in their dormancy survived the freezes with minimal or no damage but what is questionable now is the survival of shrubs. The Post Dispatch reader Julia C. laments the unknown, but likely, demise of her pyracantha and asks for advice. Julia is not alone. Questions have come from gardeners wondering about survival of favorite shrubs like Crepe Myrtle, Indian Hawthorn, hollies, Euonymous, Elaeagnus, roses and Sambucus.
We have had several weeks of fine spring growing weather since the Deep Freeze, giving time for some shrubs to resume growth; however, many shrubs are still dormant and may not yet have begun to bud out. So gardeners should not be too quick to start heavy pruning until they are confident there is no hope for regrowth.
Here is a quick way to determine if shrubs are alive but still dormant or if the shrubs did not make it: the “brittle test.”
Test to see if plant tissue is living with the “brittle test.” Bend branches from stem tips and gradually work down the stem. Pliable, living branches will bend easily, without snapping or breaking; branches that snap when bent are likely dead. Continue working down the stem until live tissue is reached. Keep the portions of branches with living tissue but remove all dead tissue. It will not be unusual for sections of shrubs to still be alive, while other sections have died; but unfortunately, plants with no living tissue down to the roots are beyond hope.
But again, go slowly. Some roses in our garden looked completely lost. The more mature canes appeared definitely dead, but closer look this weekend showed buds popping out. So my advice is to go slow, wait to remove shrubs and plants until after the brittle test or enough time has passed to bid them adieu.
Questions or comments? Email Ellen Peffley at firstname.lastname@example.org