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The historic hard freeze of 2021 is behind us and mountains of dead plants lie in its wake. But as tempting as it might be to grab the pruning shears and tackle the mess, experienced gardeners recommend patience.

“Don’t panic. Better to wait a bit,” said Peter Pierson, a longtime nurseryman and avid gardener who works as a trainer at the San Antonio River Authority. “We might have another freeze.”

The average last frost date for San Antonio is around March 15.

The blanket of dead foliage might act as insulation for the plants that survived, gardeners point out. And just because a woody shrub doesn’t have any leaves left, doesn’t mean it’s dead – so don’t write off that lantana until a few weeks have passed, your plants have had a chance to recover, and an accurate assessment can be made.

Plant damage worth millions of dollars has resulted from the week-long weather event, said Bexar County Texas Agrilife Extension Agent David Rodriguez, who oversees the Master Gardener program in San Antonio.

“And unless you have an expensive rider to your homeowners policy, none of it’s covered,” he said, adding that insurance policies that cover plants and lawns are cost-prohibitive for most people.

“The first step is to evaluate the plants, pray a little, and be little bit patient. … Wait one, two weeks,” said Rodriguez. “Leave the ugly and brown there, and go back and look within a week.”

“It very much depends on the plants,” said Cecile Parrish, manager of the Garcia Street Urban Farm on San Antonio’s east side.

Garcia Street Urban Farm on San Antonio’s East Side. The historic hard freeze of 2021 is behind us and mountains of dead plants lie in its wake. Photos taken on February 23, 2021.
The collard greens at Garcia Street Urban Farm were destroyed by the freeze. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Annuals and anything that bloomed early will likely have “lost its crop,” meaning seeds and fruit will not set this season because the flowers were stopped in their tracks by the freeze.

That’s the case for some citrus trees, agarita, loquats, and spring vegetable transplants. Some gardeners got an early start and had already planted tomatoes.

If a plant’s stalk has turned mushy as a result of the freeze, that means the plant’s cell walls froze and that biomass is dead. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the plant is a goner, said Parrish. The roots could still be viable and push out new growth.

Judging from numerous prickly pear stands around San Antonio, the storied nopal species took quite a hit last week. Large stands that once towered 6 feet to 8 feet in height appear bent over in submission to the freeze, their thorny green paddles defenseless against sub-zero temps.

Parrish said you can cut back the prickly pear paddles if they’re soft. “Just prune down to the firm paddles. You can even cut a paddle in half. Wonky-shaped paddles will still grow,” she said.

Prickly pear cacti succumb to the freeze in Dignowity Hill.
Prickly pear cacti succumb to the freeze in Dignowity Hill. Credit: Courtesy / Alex Rivard

Charles Bartlett, founder of Green Haven Industries Inc., said for shrubs and hedges, widespread browning of foliage has occurred, but the stems remain supple and will probably begin to bud new foliage in the next few weeks. 

“Just be patient, and watch for the regrowth,” said Bartlett. “Once that determination is made, then the frozen stems and leaves can be trimmed back to green and growing stems.”

As for perennials, both native and non-native, their roots will likely recover, but it could take several weeks of warm weather to determine the extent of stem damage. Once regrowth of buds and stems occurs, then you can start pruning. Many native plants will survive and begin rapid spring growth, said Bartlett.

The area’s annual spring wildflower show could also be impacted by the big freeze.

“The snow acted as an insulator and that’s a good thing,” said Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. DeLong-Amaya said most of the wildflowers endured the storms, with the exception of a handful that had started to bolt and were up above the snow in open areas.

“Those flower stalks are burned, but the rosettes are fine,” she said, adding that bluebonnets and other spring blooming wildflowers are adapted to cold temperatures.

As for this year’s wildflower season, the cold spell is likely to reset things so the flowers bloom during their normal time, said DeLong-Amaya.

This article has been updated to correct the surname of Andrea DeLong-Amaya.

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Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...