Gardening

Freeze Framed in February: Houston Gardening

The new growth of an Angel's Trumpet emerges.
The new growth of an Angel's Trumpet emerges. Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

The residents of the Lone Star State have good reason to be traumatized by the ups and downs of February temperatures. In 2021, not only were we in the second year of the COVID pandemic, but many of us were huddling in below-freezing temps in our own homes, melting snow to flush toilets or taking brief respites in our cars with the heat on full blast.

For gardeners, last year's winter snow storm wiped out citrus trees and froze back many perennials and shrubs. However, for those who gave their botanical victims a chance to recover, their patience was rewarded by plants that came back up from their roots, occasionally even more vigorous than before.

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The garden's summer lushness.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
For this gardener, the 2021 freeze did what I am always hesitant to do and that is proper pruning. The roses bloomed better than ever, the sago palms returned full and green and the oleander is now a manageable size. Then, February 2022 arrived with constantly fluctuating temperatures. We Houston gardeners have become weary of hauling plants in and out of our homes and the month-long chore of covering and uncovering precious outdoor specimens. Though my cats loved the indoor forest, I did not enjoy their propensity to use the pots as litterboxes.

Last week, I gave up. I decided that what lives lives and what doesn't, well, too bad. There is a point in a gardening year where it doesn't seem worth it and I hit that wall when the temps fell from 75 degrees to freezing.
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A tulip magnolia signals the return of spring.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Still, the promise of spring is right around the corner. My neighbor's tulip magnolia is blooming, always a sign that I need to get my gardening gloves on and clear away winter's debris. However, it needs to be done carefully, with observant eyes looking for new growth, as I discovered while looking at my Angel Trumpet's brown, sad stems. Right at ground level, new leaves were already emerging.
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Leeks can, and should, be planted now.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
This week is the time to prepare the garden for early vegetable transplants. Some cold-tolerant seedlings like cabbage, spinach and kale can still go in while seeds for radishes, carrots, lettuce and beets can be sown in the ground as well as English, or garden, peas. It's too late to start seeds for tomatoes, but next week, many garden centers should be putting out tomato transplants. Wise gardeners will watch the weather forecast for any late freezes then pop those tomato babies in as soon as possible so that they will produce before summer's heat. Most tomato enthusiasts in Houston shoot for late February but tomatoes can be planted through March, depending on the type. Still, the earlier the better. Be prepared to cover them in case of a late freeze.
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Midnight Snack is a conversation starter.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

It's a good idea to choose a variety of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes according to your household's needs. Cherry tomatoes can be prolific for a long time while many paste, or Roma, type tomatoes produce all at once. Heirloom varieties are often not as productive as modern hybrids but they make up for it in flavor. And there are so many different colors to choose from beyond the typical red fruit. Last fall, I planted Midnight Snack, a cherry variety that was deep black at the stem end. Unfortunately, I was only able to harvest a tasty few before a late January freeze. I am going to try this unique variety again this spring.
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The freeze-damaged leaves of oleander will usually shed on their own.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
These last winter weeks are also a good time to get the right tools for the job. That rusty pair of pruning shears left out in the rain are not going to cut it, literally. Sharp shears make for cleaner cuts. In Houston, many rose growers prune on February 14, according to the rose's growth habits. For those who are behind, there may still be time to do some pruning. Some of our roses have already put out new growth so I am letting them do their own thing.

While folks up north are still daydreaming about their flower and vegetable gardens, Houstonians need to get their plans in gear now. It's a smart idea to get mulch, potting soil, amendments, tools, seeds and plants before March Madness hits the gardening centers.  Supply chain and staffing issues are affecting more than just grocery stores and car dealerships. Some popular seed companies are warning that seed and plant orders may be delayed so it's best to get orders in now before spring fever hits the rest of the country.
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French lavender has fringed edges.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
For those who have the time to clear out flower beds and prepare their vegetable plots, this week is the time to do it. We may have one more light freeze but we should be good to go by the end of this month. A number of herbs like parsley, lavender, sage, oregano and others can be planted. For Houstonians, French lavender is a good choice. It performs far better in our heat than English lavender but it does need to be out of the sun during the hottest part of the day. I keep it in large pots that get morning sun but are shaded by my house in the afternoon. Basil is a culinary favorite but it can get damaged by temps in the forties so keep it in easily-moved pots until the threat of frost is past. In late March, sow basil seeds for a summer bounty.
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Plan now for an early harvest.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Many of us lost citrus trees and our excitement about the new growth on the trunks turned to disappointment when we learned that the new growth was probably just the rootstock which is used for many grafted citrus trees. Some people like to let it grow and see what happens, others say that the rootstock growth will not produce fruit, or if it does, it will be inedible. Citrus trees can be tricky. Fortunately, we have local resources such as Urban Harvest to help us with our questions. The non-profit organization hosts a number of educational classes for fruit and vegetable gardening.

It's still too early to sow most flower seeds but nurseries will soon have flats of colorful annuals like snapdragon, stock, lobelia and dianthus for the early spring months with petunias, impatiens and salvia not far behind. However, gardeners can pick up zinnia, cosmos and sunflower seeds now to sow when the weather warms up.
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It's time to be a busy bee in the garden.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
As February nears its end, it's time to prepare for the spring. Planning is important but it is the actual doing that produces results. Gardening gets us outside and helps to relieve the stress of non-stop bad news and everyday worries. It grounds us, both literally and figuratively. And if you get a basket full of fresh vegetables or a pretty bouquet of flowers for your efforts, well, that's just the cherry tomato on top. 
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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.