TEXAS CERTIFIED EXPERT GARDENER — Determining winter damage key for plant survival

Published 12:06 am Wednesday, February 14, 2024

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While walking around the yard I noted what appears to be a vast, brown, lifeless landscape-almost devoid of greenery, but for sporadic drifts of weeds, which appear to be overtaking some lawn areas (lucky me)!

Today’s gardening topic should be titled the “Waiting Game,” an attribute this gardener struggles with daily!

Readers, some of you understand that plant dormancy is an integral part of the plants’ growth cycle such as trees, shrubs, and perennials lending their appearance to be brown and ‘slumped’ over. Often the brown leaves fall away once new sprouts begin growing in spring or leaves develop slightly past the area where leaves grew previously. Allow the “eyesore” to remain until all winter (last freeze) is behind us, so don’t begin pruning just yet! My recommendation is to wait until spring when new growth begins (mid-March or later).

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The “WAITING” game (period) is difficult for most gardeners (me included) since we want our gardens to look their absolute best, but you need to understand that choosing not to wait can further damage plants if we experience another ‘cold’ snap, meaning plants will experience more damage and might not survive your ‘overzealous’ gardening technique. The waiting period ensures you don’t remove plants, digging them up thinking they are dead when in fact, they simply remain in dormancy.


The simplest way to determine if a plant is dead or alive is by slightly scratching the bark, since the growth layer immediately below will be green if its alive. Otherwise, the plant succumbed to winter temperatures or something else, such as too much moisture.

This is a guide for pruning damaged material from plants: remove the damaged portion of the plant allowing the “green” material layer to remain. There are instances where some plants look okay but then begin to brown or appear ‘slimy & silvery’ once spring arrives.

Unfortunately, the root system was extensively damaged during the winter months from the cold weather or too much rainfall. Suggested pruning details are listed for several plant groups but remember to wait until our last anticipated frost date, which according to the 2024 Farmer’s Almanac is Feb. 26 for SETX.


Ornamental grasses and perennials growth cycle includes a dormancy period where the plants die back to the ground, so don’t be overly concerned if they appear dead! I’d suggest removing the dead portions of the plants 2 or 3-inches above the ground. Once warmer weather returns new growth will appear.

Ferns damaged by the cold such as Boston, sword, leather leaf, holly, asparagus, and others: cut to the ground before new fronds appear in the spring. Remove damaged foliage from bird of paradise plants, taking the leaf blade and stem. These plants most likely survived & will recover but summer flowering might be sparse.

Tropicals which produce bulbs, rhizomes or fleshy below-ground roots will be OK. Remove winter burned foliage from ginger, cannas, agapanthus, amaryllis, crinum, spider lilies, elephant ears-to the ground and add mulch.

Hibiscus and other woody topicals, such as Brugmansia, tibouchina, bougainvillea, croton and ixora most likely have damage (mine certainly do). Once new growth appears prune plants, as this allows you to see what is alive and what is not.

If you’re impatient (many of you should raise your hands-me too), scratch the bark starting at the top of the plant and working downward. Brown means tissue (branch) is dead, green tissue is still alive, and cut back to this point.


Prune roses severely in late February or early March. Hydrangeas should never have more than 50 percent of the old growth removed, since severe pruning promotes vegetative growth while slowing flower development.

Prune varieties, which bloom on old wood once flowers fade. Newer varieties may bloom on either new growth, or a mixture of new & old growth allowing for a more flexible pruning window. Some camellia & azalea buds may have frozen, and unfortunately the plants may not flower.

Do not prune until after their typical bloom time, salvaging any flowers which may make it through winter.


Citrus does not appreciate cold temperatures (like temps in the 20’s). Lemons and limes (least cold tolerant) are more likely to show damage or die, though even if all leaves are dropped, they may still be alive.

Leaves which have turned brown, remaining attached indicate major branch damage. STOP: don’t do anything to citrus trees now but wait until new growth begins in spring. If new sprouts appear from the base of the trunk (below the graft union), the desirable citrus is lost, remove, and replace the tree.

If new growth appears above the graft union, prune back to the areas which are sprouting. It is not uncommon for growing shoots to collapse and die, remove them.

Keep in mind that we live in hardiness zone 9, which is not a tropical region (remind me of this during the summer months-please) and we will continue experiencing severe cold weather patterns as our climate is changing.

Review the plants in your landscape and consider where you use ‘tender’ tropical plants. As gardeners, we can easily get carried away with the use of these wonderful plants – then witness extensive damage or loss during hard freezes.

Let’s go out and grow a greener, more sustainable world, one plant at a time.

Send Certified Texas Expert Gardener John Green your questions and please continue sending comments to jongreene57@gmail.com.