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Janet Laminack: Still not too late to prepare plants for winter

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Janet Laminack

Texas weather is unpredictable, but I was surprised that our temperatures dropped so low so early this year. Our average first freeze is mid to late November. Oct. 28 is a bit early, but not totally unheard of. It is Texas after all.

What does this mean for our plants? Warm-season tropical plants should have been protected, otherwise they probably received damage. Maybe you were fortunate and have a warmer microclimate around your tropical and tender plants. South-facing areas with concrete or water features will often stay a few degrees warmer. Most likely though, it's goodbye to tomatoes, basil, peppers and other warm-season edibles. Sweet potato vines are showing some dieback and blackened leaves, but mine aren't completely dead yet. (However, I have them in a very warm part of my yard.)

Perennials should be fine, but some will start to dieback to the ground. If you aren't sure how much of your plant has died versus just gone dormant, it's best to wait a while before any drastic pruning. Also, you can contact our Master Gardener Help Desk and we can help advise you. Allowing the dried foliage to remain often helps insulate the plant the rest of the winter. But some people prefer a tidier look in their yard. In those cases, I would still wait at least a month, preferably two before cutting anything back.

Trees and shrubs might have suffered some damage, but we won't know until next spring unfortunately. Damage is most likely when plants are still growing actively and putting on new succulent growth. Cold snaps that are severe, sudden and longer than normal tend to be the most damaging. This cold snap was pretty quick and mild, compared to last December's arctic plunge. Evergreen shrubs and trees should receive occasional deep watererings throughout the winter to prevent desiccation of the leaves. Especially if the weather is windy and dry.

Bermuda grass and St Augustine lawns may now start going into dormancy. That means you can cut back on watering and mowing. However, applying water about once a month in the winter is advisable, if we aren't getting rain.

Because of the cooler temperatures, now is a great time to plant trees and shrubs. It's also an excellent time to put more mulch out on all your landscaped areas. Mulch will help moderate the soil temperature and retain moisture. Also, personal experience has shown that hauling mulch around in the yard is much more pleasant in November than in July.

As we eventually prepare for winter, remember to run your lawnmower out of gasoline before you put it away for the season. This prevents gumming up and water condensation and other bad motor stuff (I know plants, not engines). 

Also take a look at your irrigation system controller and adjust it for the winter. If your controller is old and doesn't have a rain/freeze sensor, it's time to upgrade to a newer model with water conserving settings such as soak and cycle. At the very least, please don't run your sprinkler when it is freezing. You don't want to be the one responsible for creating a dangerous icy area on streets or sidewalks.

If you have horticulture questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 940-349-2892 or via email at master.gardener@dentoncounty.com.

JANET LAMINACK is the horticulture county extension agent with Texas AgriLife Extension. She can be reached at 940-349-2883 or via email at jelaminack@ag.tamu.edu.