San Antonio-area landscaper offers advice for stressed, damaged plants and grass after winter storm

Her main advice? Be patient.


SAN ANTONIO – In a typical year, landscape-loving people in San Antonio are getting the itch to start some spring planting and fertilizing.

Just when plants should be weeks away from spring blooms, many just look dead. Even those of us with brown thumbs recognize that our plants are not okay after last week’s deep freeze.

So what should we do about it?

There are a lot of people looking for advice right now. One New Braunfels-area landscaper is sharing some detailed tips with her customers and she’s allowing KSAT to share them with our audience.

Christy Rohlf is the owner of Liberty Lawn & Landscaping Inc. She said landscapers across the state are hoping to learn from this event.

Texas A&M horticulture experts are even asking people to post pictures of their plants on social media using one of the following hashtags: #showusyourugly, #agrilifestrong, #learntolikeugly. Aggie horticulturists plan to use the pictures for research, to learn about plant damage in different parts of the state in hopes of finding better ways to prevent plant loss during future freezes.

Here’s what Rohlf wrote about how to deal with stressed and damaged plants after the winter storm:

This unexpected and extraordinary cold has surely redefined the landscape of all of Texas from the tip of the panhandle to the Rio Grande. As we come out of our homes and inspect our landscapes there is much dismay. The color brown has become the new color for this month’s landscape. Most of all, turf grasses are brown and crisp as they are severely brown tipped with stressed wilt. Perennials and Tropicals are completely burnt and are either covered with brown crisp leaves and sticks or are globs of mush. In addition, tree leaves are burnt or have a hazy green tint while fronds on palms are drooping with similar brown and gray-green in color.

From the first sight of snow, I began to collect and gather information through webinars, zoom meetings, chats, and various conversations in the horticulture industry in order to prepare for promoting recovery in the landscape. Through these efforts, I have collectively put together an informative guide to aid in our customers’ landscapes from residential to commercial.

STEP #1: Be PATIENT, let nature take its course. This is especially difficult for some, myself included, as I want to be as proactive and preventative as possible. However, nature knows more about its instinctive abilities than human research and science.

STEP #2: This has been the most talked-about subject this week as this can and should be completed now before springtime. IRRIGATION AUDITs... every green aggie I was privileged to chat with stressed the need for an irrigation audit due to the shallowness of irrigation lines (about 6 inches) in Texas. Irrigation systems need to remain off for the next 10 days as most, if not all, vegetation is in complete shock. Once the ground has reached temperatures in the high 50′s and air temperatures are averaging 60′s, irrigation is going to be slowly added to the turf and plants. However, it has been advised constantly to run the system multiple times through short intervals in order to find the broken pipes, leaking valves, cracked backflows, or stuck sprinkler heads.

STEP #3: Try to minimize foot traffic on lawns for the next two weeks. Most of the turf blades are dead; however, the root systems can be preserved and assisted by decreasing compaction. The more air in the soil, the better roots will begin to regrow and establish a healthy lawn. If you have St. Augustine turf, there may be spot/patch damage or large sections of death. This especially true if your St. Augustine turf is on a hill facing the north. Zoysia is the most cold-tolerant grass with Bermuda coming in second. St. Augustine is more susceptible to freeze damage and death.

In continuation with turf, chemical applications should be limited this year. Fertilizer should only be organic this year as the turf is extremely stressed and any high % rates for nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium can stunt the roots and add more stress. Organic fertilizer should only be applied during April and May for springtime as this allows the turf to rejuvenate new growth for both roots and blades as well as prepare for the summer heat. Regarding weeds, all current weeds should be spot treated at the beginning of March followed by a two-week recovery time. My green aggie correspondence also stressed the use of only one commercial product for preventing weed control this year as it doesn’t affect the roots of turf and only eliminates the weed upon sprouting. Weed control products such as weed & feed will greatly stress your turf and allow the possibility of disease and pests.

STEP #4: (This is a tough one for me!) Trees will show signs of frost/freeze cracks and/or splitting. Yesterday, I went around my 87 trees and checked for freeze damage. Of course, the foliage was burnt which will cause early defoliation but what I noticed the most was the cracks, especially on my live oaks. The biggest concern is risk management and tree health. If there are any broken branches or dead branches, these need to be removed properly. If a frost crack or branch splitting is deep and large enough for the branch integrity to be compromised, the tree needs to be properly pruned for weight management or branch removal. Trees will recover from small or medium-sized cracks but not from large splits. Also, I did have one tree with bark peeling. Again, with trees planted or transplanted over 5 years, nature will have to heal itself as wraps and protective materials can harbor moisture and pest.

STEP #5: Evergreen shrubs will more than likely go through a defoliating period. The shrubs that remain vibrant green the next seven days, such as hollies, will probably not defoliate; however, all brown or grayish-green leaves will do so. Shrubs like rosemary, wax myrtles, pittosporums, oleanders, and other less cold-tolerant evergreen shrubs may experience branch dieback or total dieback down to the ground. If total dieback occurs to the root ball, the plant will need to be replaced because, unlike perennials, the plant will not regrow back to shape or fullness. However, branch dieback can also cause unsightly shrubs for which may never fill in and also require replacement. Be patient, some of this dieback will not be produced or observed until after spring when the plant is unable to produce new foliage.

STEP #6: All perennials, no matter if they still have some green foliage, will require a complete cut-back to 2-3 inches from the ground to remove all damage and/or death. This will include Asian Jasmine, Dianella, Butterfly Iris, Bicolor Iris, and all other perennials for which typically stay green during mild to moderate Texas winters. I also have been advised that some perennials such as Pride of Barbados, Esperanza, Mexican Bush Sage, Flame Acanthus, and other less cold-tolerant perennials can take up to late May or early June to sprout back out. Again, patience, I will suggest leaning on the side of caution when pulling out native perennials until June if not sprouting new growth.

STEP #7: Palms and Tropical Plants are the most sensitive to these cold temperatures this past week. The advice and input I received about these types of plants are quite concerning but I am not giving up complete hope. Some palm varieties may recover and produce new fronds. This is the key to the viability of all plants.. sprouting new growth. With Palms and Tropicals, all dead fronds and foliage need to be removed within the next couple of weeks. This will aid these types of plants in recovering and producing new foliage as soon as possible if they are still viable and physiologically intact.

STEP #8: Cacti and Succulents are also similar to tropical plants in regard to cold temperatures. In correlation to this similarity, all removal of black and damaged foliage should be removed promptly for promoting recovery and possible viability. Also, cacti and succulents may take even longer than perennials to sprout new growth. One green aggie said up to a year!

STEP #9: Fruit Trees will need to be monitored for budding on branching. If the tree dies back to the main trunk, the production of the tree will be inadequate as the graft site will be compromised. If there is no budding by the mid-to-end of spring, the tree is too severely damaged or dead and should be removed or replaced. Fertilizer should only be organic and occur after complete foliage production.

Lastly but most importantly, STEP #10: Mulch, mulch, mulch, and more mulch... (3 to 4 inches at most)! These plants (minus the turf) need organic matter introduced into the soil as well as the added layer of insulation for both moisture and the cold. If your vegetation is in mulch beds, this is the time to make sure there is a minimum of 3 inches with a recommended 4 inches of mulch to promote plant recovery. It may be too early to think about summer heat and drought; but, with the possibility of another freeze through March 21st (our zones last frost date), mulch is the best mechanism for root integrity and viability.

One final comment: Please do not overwater any vegetation. As noted above, all of our landscape plants are in shock mode right now and are not thinking about growth even in this 60-degree weather. Drowning their roots with water will only lead to more stress and destruction as well as possibly cause the nutrients in the soil to leach.

My apologies if this is an extensive amount of information but my goal was to cover as much as possible for Liberty Lawn’s customers. Over the last four days, I have been gathering as much factual material from all types of horticultural specialists in Texas as well as condense the information for purposeful use.

Have a Blessed Day and a “Pleasant” Week!

Christy Rohlf

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About the Author:

Julie Moreno has worked in local television news for more than 20 years. She came to KSAT as a news producer in 2000. After producing thousands of newscasts, she transitioned to the digital team in 2015. She writes on a wide variety of topics from breaking news to trending stories and manages KSAT’s daily digital content strategy.