Last Sunday, I reposted some of my standard freeze-recovery rules on Facebook. And although the list is practical and still needed, it prompted a slew of questions. So, it appears some clarifications are needed. Even if you think you know all my rules, take a moment to re-read them ... I really don't want your plants totally fried if we happen to get a hard freeze again before March 1.
Also, check out the photos below of my own freeze-damaged plants and what I plan to do with them.
1. If it's crispy and brown, cut it back to green wood. Hibiscus, lantana, hamelia and other perennials are great examples. Or, leave the crispy and brown freeze-damaged plants alone until you are convinced we are not going to have any more freezing weather this winter. If you do cut back to green, you have to promise me and yourself that you will super protect them if we do get hit again. There are two reasons:
a. The fresh cut will act like a straw and pull cold directly into the plant. That can totally kill a perennial that otherwise could handle freezing weather.
b. If we get temperate weather for a couple of weeks, new growth could appear. That new material will be even more vulnerable to future freezes and pull damage further into the plant.
2. If you cut a brown and crispy plant down to the ground and see no sign of green, but the root system seems to be firmly locked in, consider leaving it alone and see what comes back. If the root system moves around easily - like a car's stick-shift - it's dead. You can remove the whole thing.
3. If it's mushy, gushy or gooey, get rid of it! Cut it out, remove it - do whatever it takes to get the nasty stuff out of there. Tropicals like bananas or split-leaf philodendrons are examples. You truly need to get the mushy stuff out, otherwise fungal disease will develop. After you cut all the mushy parts away, you may be left with a tiny bit of green material near ground level. It will be highly susceptible to future freezes that can kill the plant to the root system, so you'll have to protect it.
4. If a palm frond (such as those in queen palms) is drooping over, cut it out or back. If a frond is standing up, leave it alone. Remember the January 2010 freeze? We had to wait months to learn if they were coming back or not. The only way to know for sure if a palm is dead is to examine the inside of the crown, where new growth emerges. Most of us don't have tree company equipment or ladders tall enough to conduct such an inspection. A racquetball buddy who was in Florida during the early January freeze, texted me with worries about his queen palms. When he got home, he shot a picture of the palm and thought it looked just fine. I don't want to rain on his parade, but he certainly won't know the full extent of some palm damage for at least another 30-45 days.
5. On palms small enough to inspect the fronds (a dwarf pygmy date palm is a perfect example), pull on those in the interior to see if they stay in. If they easily slide out, the plant is dead. If they hold tight, the plant may still be alive, but you will have to wait and see. And, again, with super-sensitive tropicals that could be still alive but from which you've removed lots of fronds, please protect them well on future freeze nights ... all the area opened from removed fronds will act like a straw and pull the cold further into the plant.
6. If you feel confident we won't have any more hard freezes between now and Feb. 15, it's time to scalp the yard. Essentially, you'll try to vacuum up dead grass so live roots are open to the air, sunshine, water and fertilizer. But be warned: if you scalp and we get another hard freeze, you could actually kill a St. Augustine lawn. So, I strongly suggest that you not scalp until at least mid-February. By the way, you should read my updated rules for scalping lawns. I think that we likely will have the first true need for it since February 2011. That was the last time we had a hard freeze that negatively impacted typical lawns here.
7. If your St. Augustine lawn has a lot of built up thatch, don't mechanically de-thatch - scalp instead. There are products that will help break down the thatch - basically anything containing humus or humates. The article on scalping mentioned in Rule 6 also includes great detail on de-thatching and the many myths surrounding it.
Below are some pictures that show severe freeze damage on my own property and what I plan to do in each situation. Maybe you can learn through my examples.
1. Variegated ginger - I know the roots are intact, as I did the "stick-shift test" from Rule 2. I will cut them back to about a foot tall this weekend, and will protect them mightily if a freeze of any kind comes my way before March 1.
2. Hibiscus - I know these roots are also intact, and there's actually green in the stalks about a foot above ground. I will stop cutting where I see green, and I will protect them on any future freeze night.
3. Golden durantas - While leafless, there are still very much alive, and I will only prune them when I'm convinced we are out of harm's way. I will examine the possibility of pruning them come mid-February.
4. Sizzling lime hamelias: I lump these in the crispy and brown department and won't touch them until mid-February.
5. Split-leaf philodendron: They are mushy and will be cleaned up this weekend. I will cover them with great care on potential freezing nights through March 1.
Please share this information with friends and neighbors, and encourage them to tune in GardenLine each weekend in 2017 if they want to learn even more about recovering from extreme weather and succeed with all types of gardening along The Gulf Coast. And I again encourage you to like the GardenLine page on Facebook, because we post valuable information there every day.