Frost After the Freeze

On Saturday, January 1, 2022, it was 78 F. The next morning I awoke to a garden at 26 F. Brrrrr! Shorts and t-shirts one day; leggings, layered jackets, cap and gloves the next!

The first thing I saw when I walked into the front garden was a hummingbird zooming past me heading straight for Mexican Honeysuckle. Unfortunately, the orange flowers were freezer-burned and the poor little bird, after trying several blooms and clearly not finding any nectar, flew off to find his breakfast. My SIL ambled over I and pointed to the hummer and suggested she put out her hummingbird feeder so the hummer could get its energy drink.

After this freeze, there’s little for pollinators. Hello winter! Sunday was a cold, windy day and it was clear that most perennials in the garden would have some freeze damage, time would tell just how much.

By Monday morning the wind had died down, but it was another very cold day, 26 F, a hard freeze. What brought me into the garden so cold and early was the appearance of the frost sculptures of Frostweed, Verbesina virginica. So named ‘frostweed’ this particular plant is known for its elaborate ice sculptures along the stems, caused by the first hard freeze of a season. The sculptures develop when water in a stem freezes and expands, breaking through the stem’s epidermis. As the water moves up the stem, it freezes into thin, fragile ribbons. The curls of ice that develop are delicate and can be quite elaborate, though I thought this year’s ice show was a bit restrained.

Frostweed produces substantial ice sculptures along its main stems, but it isn’t the only plant to rock these ice designs. On Sunday morning several perennials burst outward in icy winter performance art.

Firecracker Plant, Russelia equisetiformis:

Lemon Rose Mallow, Hibiscus calyphyllus:

Behind the frostweed, the stems of Barbados Cherry, Malpighia glabra:

The destruction of these stems means that a complete pruning to the ground is now required. The stems that grew during the year are permanently damaged and new spring growth will come from the roots. If the freeze wasn’t so hard, the plants might have suffered some freezer burn (like the aforementioned Mexican Honeysuckle), but not the bursting of the plants’ frozen pipes, effectively killing the plant above the ground. These plants are hardy, at least to 8F, so they’ll come back with warm spring breezes and longer days.

What I found interesting is that the ice sculptures happened on Monday, the second day of the freeze, not on Sunday, the first day of the freeze. Typically, it’s the first hard freeze that produces the ice sculptures. Best guess? I think because our fall and early winter has been very warm, the ground temperature prevented the stems from freezing that first night/morning, therefore there was no breakage and no ice. By the second morning, warmth from the soil had dissipated and all bets were off–it’s ice art all around!

The winter gardening chores are now set: raking and shredding of leaves, most of which go into the gardens, the rest into the compost; pruning of perennials, which is a weekly chore through February, and cleaning the pond which will be a very long, stinky day, indeed!

Flowers Before the Freeze

It’s been a warm autumn and early winter here in Austin, Texas. December 2021 is now tagged as the warmest December on record and it sure felt like it. That said, there was finally a significant freeze at the flip of the calendar. While I’m always sorry to see the lush foliage of the garden and accompanying flowers disappear, it’s good that plants will rest, even though gardener’s work will increase.

Here’s a fond farewell to the the last blooms of the long growing season in the garden. When a hard freeze is forecast, I walk through my garden, bidding appreciation and adieu to my plants: those that completed the 2021 growing season and those who started 2021 and will initiate the 2022 growing season in a few short months.

Each year, the last perennial in my garden to flower is Forsythia Sage, Salvia madrensis. With grey-blue foliage during spring and summer and added sunny spikes in mid-to-late fall, it’s a welcome nectar source for pollinators toward the end of the growing season.

This native to Mexico blooms from September/October and until there is a significant freeze; some years as early as late October; this year in the early morning hours of January 2. Recently, the honeybees have engaged in nectar stealing and it’s a convenient place for them to dine, as the sage grows within about 6 feet from the honeybee hive.

Two days ago, I enjoyed viewing the last bunch of Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. I don’t pick flowers for indoor vases often, but I was tempted to pick these. Then a butterfly landed and I decided it (and its pollinating colleagues) need the flowers more than my kitchen table. The flowers are done now, after two nights of 26F (-3.3 C).

Most of the Plateau Goldeneye, Viguiera dentata, finished with blooms and graduated to seed production, but this one shrub plugged along with its yellow pops of color. After the freeze, it’ll be naught but seeds, pleasing the various finches, sparrows, and wrens who will visit.

The “new” garden is done–sort of. With mature sections on either side, but no tree in the middle, I’ve planted/transplanted perennials, shrubs, and grasses that will take a few years to fill in. I planted, repaired soaker hoses, and mulched, but I’m still moving in some spring blooming annuals that have developed since November. So I guess the work isn’t actually done.

Almost, I keep saying. Almost done.

A stump is all that remains of the Arizona Ash tree. I placed a large red ceramic pot on the stump, planted with a Squid agave, Agave bracteosa and Silver Ponyfoot, Dichondra argentea. In the garden’s shady past, the pot housed a Texas Beargrass, Nolina texana. With help from The Hub, we removed the beargrass–which was a BEAR– and it’s now planted to the right and in front of the yellow chair, which about 15 feet this side of the chair, though it’s hard to tell from the photo.

Pre-2022 first freeze, the only bloom in this part of the garden was one luscious Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua. It’s a sun worshiper, so it should be very happy in its spot near the street. In fact, this plant blooms more in the cool season; during summer, it’s mostly about lovely foliage.

Roses always perform nicely during our milder winters and the Martha Gonzales rose is no exception. These red beauties will be nipped by the freeze, but new ones should develop, so there will be something for the bees.

The crazy-tall American Basket flowers, Centaurea americana have bloomed since mid summer, but I imagine that the flowering is now done. Their winter rosettes should be fine as they hug the warm ground, but those spikes topped by spidery, pinky flowers are vulnerable to cold air. I plan to move some of these pretty pollinator-friendly native annuals throughout my front garden and maybe a couple to sunny spots in the shadier back garden.

Before the freeze, several Queen butterflies, Danaus gilippus, worked basket flowers,

…and remaining blooms of the Mexican Orchid tree, Bauhinia mexicana.

Both plants will be dormant and then pruned to the ground after this hard freeze.

Another native plant to Mexico, Mexican honeysuckle, Justicia spicigera, blooms, as it does during a mild winter. Bees, some butterflies, and an over-wintering hummingbird enjoyed the blooms.

A reliable, long-blooming perennial, Tropical sage, Salvia coccinea, is a favorite of bees. It provides flowers throughout a mild winter, but anything in the 20sF makes it irrelevant for the pollinators until spring warmth brings on the dainty, white blooms.

This is also true for Firecracker Plant, Russelia equisetiformis. It blooms throughout the growing season, reveling in the heat of summer. These tubular blooms attract small metallic sweat bees. I’ll be pruning it to the ground after these chilly temperatures.

Four-nerve Daisy, Tetraneuris scaposa, will bloom throughout winter. The freeze will impact current daisies, but new ones will replace them immediately. It’s nice to have some cheerful yellow during the winter months.

The last bloom I noticed on the goodbye tour was a singular Lemon Rose Mallow, Hibiscus calyphyllus. I’ve never seen this plant flower so late, though with a record warm autumn and early winter, I guess continued blooming of the warm-season perennial makes sense. I’m certain that the freeze will render this sunny hibiscus defunct until sometime in May.

After the freeze, the garden rests. All it will need is occasional water, preferable in the form of some gentle rain, though with the drought conditions, will probably come from the end of my hose. This week I’ll begin pruning to the ground those that benefit from a complete whack and later in winter, pruning to shape for those that prefer a less dramatic end to the growing season. It won’t be too long before some of the spring-blooming trees will offer life to the insects awaiting meals and the cycle will begin anew.

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.