“If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes and it’ll change.” Perhaps you grew up in a community that claimed that catch phrase as its own. But these days, it doesn’t sound much like a joke with climatologists predicting a warmer, drier climate becoming the norm in Texas.
As severe drought and other extreme weather events become conversation across the nation, gardeners in Central Texas are asking what they can do to keep their landscapes healthy while temperatures bounce from the 40s to the 80s at winter’s end.
Andrea DeLong-Amaya, horticulture director at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin, provides some general guidelines -- with the caveat that we’re all treading into new territory. Her tips are from experience working with native plants that have evolved to survive Texas’ weather extremes.
Gardeners in Austin and elsewhere are used to removing the dead limbs and flowerheads from native plants such as yellow bells (esperanza) or shrubby boneset (aka. white mistflower) by late winter. But this year, winter stayed warm, causing plants to lose fewer of their outer branches to frost.
DeLong-Amaya noted it’s fine to prune shrubs such as yellow bells, Turk’s cap and flame acanthus if you want them to be bushier and have more flowers come spring. “The plants are used to freezing back in the winter anyway,” she said.
Lantana and white mistflower also benefit from being cut back. Just don’t wait too much longer or you might jeopardize new growth on these or other plants that benefit from pruning. And be sure you know whether a plant only produces flowers from old growth that would be lost with early spring pruning. For example, you’d be trimming soon-to-bloom flower buds off some Texas redbuds if you pruned now.
Texas plants are accustomed to slow, gradual changes in weather on a geological timescale. Few people know that the Big Bend region was a grassland a century or more ago. DeLong-Amaya noted, “The problem with global climate change is that extreme weather is more frequent and conditions are more erratic.”
So should Central Texans reconnect their in-ground irrigation systems now, or let their landscaping go it alone a while longer? Dormant plants that lack new growth need less watering in general (but even they can dry out in a drier-than-normal winter). To be safe, DeLong-Amaya advises knowing your plants’ watering preferences and checking on them regularly so that you’ll notice if and when leaves start drooping or the soil they’re in becomes too dry.
Because temperatures aren’t yet in the 90s, drooping this early in the year could signal a plant that is water deprived. To check, feel the soil to see if it’s dry about an inch down. The soil check should be done for evergreens and other plants that lose their leaves during winter. “It’s fine if the soil surface is dry as the roots are what need the moisture,” she noted. “If it feels really dry an inch below the surface, go ahead and spot water for your less drought-resistant plants.”
Remember that potted plants have less soil to store water in and will need to be checked more often – particularly if the pot is unglazed clay. Potted greenery that is root bound (the roots take up much of the pot) is especially vulnerable to moisture loss and should be given a bigger “home” to stay healthy.
Hardening off plants:
If you’re wondering about moving potted plants or seedlings outdoors since some days are warmer than typical, DeLong-Amaya suggests a cautious approach. “Even though it seems warm to you, with weather conditions changing dramatically some days, it could be hard on plants.”
If you are home regularly and keep an eagle eye on your plants, though, she said you could start to “train” hardier plants and seedlings to handle Texas weather by exposing them gradually to time outside during warm spells. Be sure to bring them back in during cold nights. Adding mulch around the base of these and other plants also helps them handle temperature changes better, just as insulation does for a home’s interior. “You can mulch whenever you need to before summer hits,” DeLong-Amaya added.
Visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Drought Resource Center to learn more about watering wisely, ways to shelter greenery from the sun, choosing drought-tolerant native plants and other topics.