A Study in Ice

The ice arrived on Thursday, a sheet of crystalline wet over everything. 

Spent bloom stalk of Red Yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora

Little precipitation has fallen since, but not so the temperature. Austin has been below freezing since Thursday and as of Sunday afternoon, my garden sits in a freezer of mid-to-low 20sF, the cold to continue much colder overnight and into the next couple of days.

Ice covered Shrubby Blue sage, Salvia ballotiflora
A closer look

Shrubby Blue sage is native to Texas, but I haven’t grown it during the kind of deep-freeze that currently holds my garden hostage. Will new growth appear along each branch and limb, or will the shrub require pruning to the ground? I won’t know that answer for a while yet.

The non-native perennials that I grow–from Mexico and points southward–will suffer in this frosty time. Some may die, or be knocked back so hard that it will be next autumn before recovery is sufficient for blooming: I’m looking at you Mexican Honeysuckle and Mexican Orchid Tree! Both are heat lovers, not snow bunnies, and at least in my garden, have never lived through this much cold. The spring/summer pollinators will miss the bounty these two plants offer. My hope is that the plants are chastened, not defeated.

That is also true of Firecracker plant, Russelia equisetiformis. Native to Mexico and parts of Central America, my three clumps will definitely die to the ground, even though it’s been evergreen in my garden for the past few years. I hope the roots survive and the plant rejuvenates in spring. I don’t hold any hope for the return of popping blooms until next autumn.

The blooms still look red-hot, but that’s all that’s hot on this plant for now.

Another native plant, Chili pequin, Capsicum annuum, clings to its tiny, spicy fruits–those left unpicked and uneaten by the birds and the Hub.

Behind the pequin sits a group of non-native, but freezer tough, Burford Holly. Along with the deep green foliage, they’re also carrying ripe berries and plenty of ice. No doubt the Cedar Waxwings will feast once the temperatures return to Austin normal. I’ll need to park the car in the garage.

Ice droplets, rather than fruit and foliage, currently decorate the small Chili Pequin shrub.

It’s not often that Central Texas experiences long periods of freezing temperatures, or temperatures that dip to single digits, but it’s not unprecedented. I’ve live here since the late 70s (started college in 1978) and this is the third true deep freeze Austin has seen during those decades, but this one will prove a historically cold event. Typically, our freezes are of short duration and rarely dip lower than 20F (in the city). During the past two decades, mild winters have become normative. Gardeners are understandably lulled into complacency, planting inappropriately with tropicals and tenders, assuming mild winters are always expected, when in reality, contrary results are delivered just often enough for reminding.

I’ve certainly made that mistake. Many times. Ahem.

Native plants, evolved to withstand the capricious nature of Texas weather patterns, will come through this bitter, deep cold intact and ready to meet another growing season, whereas many non-native plants will be crumble and mush.

This native Roughleaf Dogwood, Cornus drummondii, looks cold and forlorn in its bare-n-icy form. The two plants behind it, Star Jasmine vine, Trachelospermum jasminoides, and, at the bottom, Cast Iron Plant, Aspidistra elatior, are seemly green-n-growing.

If our temperatures reach single digits, especially for two nights, along with almost a week of sub-freezing temperatures, the Star Jasmine will likely die to the ground–gone, kaput. Maybe it will return from the roots, maybe not. To its credit, native-to-China and Japan Cast Iron Plant is hardy and evergreen for most winter weather, but I’ve never grown it in single-digit temps, so I won’t predict whether, in a week’s time, the foliage will be green–or gone.

But sometime in March, new foliage, followed by lovely white blossoms will appear on the Dogwood; the gardener will rejoice, the pollinators will feed.

Limbs of the Dogwood with Jasmine background

One of the first native trees I planted is this Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora. Rich, glossy foliage year round, decorated with luscious purple, fragrant blooms in March and April, is today, was yesterday, and will be for the next several days, wearing a coat of ice. The small tree’s genetics remember that the Arctic has visited before and it knows how to weather the weather. I doubt the laurel will miss a beat in its preparation for the spring flower show and stalwart summer, fall, and winter beauty to come.

I confess to dreading what my garden will be when this Arctic blast has frozen its last. That being said, plants live, plants die, changes happen. A garden is always in flux, always evolving with nature’s influence or human touch. It will survive in some form and shape and I’ll replace or renew, depending upon time and creative inspiration.

34 thoughts on “A Study in Ice

  1. I share your pain…who knows what will survive. My pandemic grown-from seed madrones that went in the ground in September and October? I fervently hope so. Your garden looks pretty in the ice, and I hope the damage isn’t too extensive. Of course, any failures give us room to try new things, but it is still sad to say goodbye to old favorites.

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    • We got about 6 inches–unbelievable. Lovely, powdery stuff. Time will tell about damage, but it’s an inconvenience, not a catastrophe. There are greater problems and I’m grateful for what I have. It is sad to lose plant one loves…:(

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  2. I’m Houston area and am now listening to some small plinking against my window that can only be freezing rain. I was miffed because I figured this was the perfect week to get my raised beds ready to go, but it ended up being the right weekend to get the peat pots and trays out and start some seeds. I’ve got more materials and garden beds for fruit trees coming by the end of this week, so by then it’ll be warming a bit–hopefully–but more importantly, the ground will be easier to work with (in theory).
    I just find it bizarre that the chinese multicolor spinach is just fine and dandy in this mess as the only plant left in the bed. the rest died off long ago or were weeds I pulled just before the temperature dipped so sharply. Even my dogs don’t want to be out any longer than they have to, and it stinks because they need to run around and have fun. Maybe they’ll have finally destroyed all their chew toys after being stuck in the house most of the week. I planted some rose bushes last week (they’re just cut-back sticks right now) and hope they’ll do okay. glad I didn’t get the peppermint out and plant it yet. Probably would’ve shriveled up and died in a minute.

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    • Ah, the gardener’s bane–weather conditions. I’m hoping that our 6 inches of snow has some insulating impact on plants and their roots, but I always hope for a good outcome. A damaged garden isn’t a tragedy, just a sad inconvenience. Good luck on your veggies–hope you can get back to it soon!!

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  3. Didn’t realise Texas suffered such cold.
    We have just had a week starting with heavy snow then sub-zero temperatures brought on a strong easterly. This week will be in double digit Centigrade and spring on it’s way. As for my plants in the new garden? Like you who knows. Luckily the mist flowers I bought are still in the conservatory as it was too wet pre-freeze to plant them. The pond is frozen solid I hope the plants I put in have survived.

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    • This is historic, but yes, north Texas especially, gets regular deep freezes and snow, not so much where I live in Central Texas. It’s 8F (-13C) this morning with 6 inches of snow! I’ve never seen that before. Damn polar vortex! 🙂

      I’d read about your Beast from the East and saw some pics–brrrr! My pond isn’t frozen solid, but for the first time, it has ice across the surface. I’m reminding myself that new experiences are good for me. Haha!

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    • It was sudden for sure, and not many knew it would be THIS bad. They say it’s the coldest February in 122 years down here in Houston. I think we knew, “okay, wrap the pipes and protect the plants”, but even with precautions, my pipes froze for a few hours. So did my neighbor’s. I had to spend half the morning making windbreaks and using my space heater to thaw the pipes and get water running again. Worked. Gonna probably have to do it tomorrow, too, but at least I know what to do now (hee hee).

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      • I didn’t really believe we’d get 5-6 inches, but the weather folk were spot-on this time. I did prepare, but like you, dealt with a frozen pipe. I checked all 3 outdoor spigots at midnight (yes, I’m that obsessive) and they were dripping. At 7am, the north facing one had frozen. Out came the hair dryer, we heated up some hand towels to assist and we were able to thaw it. That one spigot dripped, the other two actually had a stream of water. Now, all three are streaming. I won’t take a chance tonight.

        Good luck to you, hope you warm up soon!

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  4. Hi Tina, your photos of the icy plants look amazing, quite a sight to see, but on the other hand, some rather sad news about your garden. I hope the big freeze doesn’t last much longer for you and I hope many of your plants survive, but if not, then it’s time to start anew, which can also be a good thing. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Sue–we’ll be freezing for a few more days and have 6 inches of snow. This is all new to me, so that’s fun. I will say it’s so beautiful and the sun is out after days of gloom. And my pipes didn’t freeze!! Dead garden aside, things to be grateful for!

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  5. I have a special request – would you (pretty pretty please!!!) post soon with some generalized advice as to how to look at a plant after a deep freeze and guess whether it might come back? And what to do (if anything) to help it out?

    I’m not sure what to trim or how hard – back to the main stem- back to the ground ?. I don’t want to add insult to injury on the far end of this snow and icepocalype!

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    • I’ll try to, Deb. I suspect it’ll be late this week, at the earliest, before I have a sense of the damage. I guess the one thing I’d say is prune to where you see green on the stem/branch. If it’s all the way to the ground, so be it. I imagine that’s what I’ll do. I’m very curious to see how things respond, but I think it won’t be pretty.

      I’m guessing you’re near 0 F? We live near KVUE and they’re registering 14F. Woo hoo! Double digits!

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  6. I guess I should not feel quite as bad. We got the freezing rain and snow last night. I do believe most of my plants won’t make it, but many may come back from the roots. I have all the feeders filled and a yard full of birds. The hummer made it through the night. They say our electric will be going out and I see you have not replied to any posts, so I’m wondering how you are doing.

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    • In some ways, I always think ice is worse than snow. We got a thin layer of sleet before the snow started, but everything is covered. I’ll definitely lose plants to the roots, the question for my non-natives is: will they come back from the roots. Stay tuned!

      Yes, rolling blackouts are happening, but so far, we’re not impacted. We lost power on Friday afternoon for about and hour, but so far, we’ve been very lucky. Stay safe and warm Judy!

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  7. Sound garden philosophy, spoken like a weathered pro, Tina. It does make a case for using native plants in our gardens, they are well-adapted. Darwinian gardening: survival of the fittest. 😉

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  8. It’s a strange mix of feelings when such lovely ice on plants is also tied to them potentially dying from extreme weather. I hope they all recover – and by Spring!
    Are you getting any seeds restarted indoors?

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    • Yes it is, Scott. I try to view these kinds of events as something to learn: for example, if I lose the Mexican Honeysuckle, is it worth replacing if once a few decades it needs replacing? I think the answer is an unqualified ‘Yes!’ because my garden is grown with a long growing season in mind, with drought and heat the norm (at least in the summers). For now, I think that’s the way forward. The next step is to get out of freezing temperatures and a half foot of snow. 🙂

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    • Oh, that’s interesting and thanks for your good wishes. It really is The Big Chill. Today is was 0 F (-17 C) in Dallas (about 4 hours north of me by car) and 6F (-14 C) here at my house. We lucky though, we didn’t lose power (except for briefly, on Friday, before the really bad stuff arrived), we’re well-stocked and safe. I’m outdoors quite a bit and this bitter cold has really put a cramp in my style! I don’t even have a pair of boots! These Dansko clogs don’t quite cut it in deep snow!

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  9. Tina -14ºC is very cold with six inches of snow and all the plants frozen: it is a historical cold wave of Austin with so long duration, it is a catastrophe for your wonderful garden. I hope that the native plants survive all and the others that there are not great losses or that they sprout again from the roots. But Tina what really worries me is you and your husband. Be very careful when walking on the frozen snow, you fall without realizing it (I have recent experience with the great historical snow that fell in Madrid a little over a month ago): do not leave home if it is not really necessary. Stay safe indoors in the heat and take good care of yourself and your husband. I hope that as soon as possible the temperatures rise a lot and the ice and snow disappear, and normal weather returns. Tina a warm hug from my mother and me. Thinking of you fondly. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita.

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    • I’ve been careful, Margarita–it is very slick and the last thing I want now is to fall! I’ll be grateful when it warms up. We are warmer this morning, but still at freezing. You take care and thank you for your good wishes.

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      • Tina you’re welcome for my good wishes. How can I not have them with my friend from the USA! Keep taking good care of yourself and stay warm. An affectionate hug. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita.

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  10. In some ways, you’re lucky. The snow I saw on your more current post will help to insulate anything that’s left. (How’s that for cheery?) We got about an inch of ice and sleet, which was just enough to coat all the roads and make driving impossible. We never got the snow, though, which sort of irritated me. If we’re going to sit around in the cold and dark, we at least ought to get some pretty snow to look at! We did have blue skies this morning, and that was nice.

    I saw online that there was a major rescue of cold-stunned turtles down the coast. I can’t remember where it was specifically, but it was around the Corpus area. I know they’re under a boil water advisory now, too, along with Ingleside and some other places. Today, I had water but no heat, while a friend across Clear Lake had heat but no water. Sigh!

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