Michael Womack, Horticulturist and Executive Director of the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center, wrote an article in the Caller Times basically telling us to wait until it warms up. Pruning too early encourages new growth, and then we get hit with another cold spell which can cause the plants to stress.
I have lots and lots of plants that look dead, but I'm waiting to see. I've had this happen before, and was pleasantly surprised when even though the plant looked dead, that they came back from the roots.
Patience, strong plants may return in summer
In the Corpus Christi area, we are seeing plants sprout. That provides a good indicator of how far back you need to prune. If you have a 6-foot firebush and only see new growth 2 feet up, then don’t expect new growth at the tips later. Cut it back to just above the new growth.
Gardeners living inland and in northern parts of the Coastal Bend probably are not seeing as much growth yet due to cooler night temperatures. If you are not seeing green leaves yet, don’t give up hope. Use the fingernail scratch test to find green wood. That’s where you want to cut.
The hardest hit tropicals seem to be hibiscus, Indian carnation, ixora, tropical milkweed, Hawaiian tree hibiscus, ti plants and angel trumpets. Lush foliage tropicals like ficus species and the standard schefflera also froze severely and are not showing signs of regrowth yet.
Here’s where patience may pay off. If you are depressed with looking at sticks and think that planting a new plant will give you quick results, you may be selling your current plants short. I would suggest waiting a few weeks before ripping up your plants. They might not look very good now, but keeping these plants may give you an advantage in the long run.
Even plants that were frozen to the ground may have viable stems at ground level. I’ve seen hibiscus freeze to the ground and come back full and vigorous later in the spring. Some tropical species simply need more time and warm weather before sprouting. You should see some growth by mid to late April. If not, then you are definitely ready to replant.
If you simply can’t wait to see something blooming, consider planting annuals that will provide color for a few months while you wait to see if your tropicals will recover.
The roots are the key. Even if your frostbitten plants look dead right now, they have an established root system. A strong, healthy root system will provide more water and nutrients for new growth than a new plant, resulting in faster growth than a new plant. New plants will focus a lot of energy on their root system the first year or two. We call that process “establishment.”
Establishment is also important to help a plant survive stresses. A newly planted shrub or perennial will require more water during the summer heat because the smaller root system will use the available water quickly trying to maintain healthy top growth. A plant with an established root system will be more tolerant this summer because it has a larger area from which the plant can pull water necessary for survival.
Michael Womack is a horticulturist and executive director of the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You might want to read his article Patience, strong plants may return in summer.