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Freeze damage casts shadow over spring garden prep in central Oklahoma

Euonymus hedge with freeze burn on many of its leaves, and bronzed or pale foliage from dehydration and sustained cold temperature stress. [PROVIDED/RODD MOESEL]
Euonymus hedge with freeze burn on many of its leaves, and bronzed or pale foliage from dehydration and sustained cold temperature stress. [PROVIDED/RODD MOESEL]

There are many things we can do in the Oklahoma garden now from planting cool-season vegetables and berries to preparing new flower beds and applying pre-emergent weed killers to our lawn.

Worry and concern for many of our trees, shrubs and plants is dominating most current garden discussions. The damage from the October ice storm when we still had leaves on the trees is largely cleaned up. That damage is mostly evident as we wait for the leafing out that will come with spring. Then we can better evaluate our tree canopy and the slow path to recovery for many trees.

The damage to our broadleaf shrubs is much more obvious now after two full weeks of warming from our extended and punishing deep February freeze. Our trees, shrubs or plant materials could not come inside our warm houses and had to tough it out in the bitter cold. We are going to lose some plants while others will freeze back to lower growth, some to the lower crown or roots.

The freeze burn on the foliage of our broadleaf evergreen shrubs now appears to be some of the worst, if not the worst, I have ever seen. The damage varies depending on your soil, how much moisture was in the soil, how much insulating snow you got and when, as well as the species of plant, age, general health, micro climate around the plant and even the side of the house where the plants are grown.

Plants on the south and west side appear to have the worst damage as they have had full sunlight shining on them while experiencing these extreme temperatures; these conflicting signals often cause greater freeze damage. Plants on the north and east side also have seen damage from this event but may be not quite as bad.

Some shrubs like wax ligustrum have almost total freeze burn on every leaf. Many varieties of Euonymus, holly, boxwood, privet, magnolia trees and many other broadleaves have marginal leaf burn, or total leaf burn or leaf drop on half or more of their foliage. This loss of foliage and so many green leaf cells will reduce the photosynthesis capacity and food production for these plants and will slow down their recovery.

Patience is still your best approach as we wait to see how nature rebounds from this extremely serious cold hardiness test. If you have heavy freeze burn or freeze back, don’t give up on the plants yet. Wait until we see the spring burst of growth to see what energy the plant has. If you need to shape the plant, you can prune now to cut the plant back out of walkways, driveways or as desired. Check the bark or stem. If the freeze caused splits or cracks in the woody stem, you have serious freeze damage. Cut back to below the split or crack where the freeze caused liquid in the stem to freeze and expand and literally explode the stem.

If the plant still has green leaves, don’t cut out too much of the more limited green foliage as we need that photosynthesis to help build up the plant. Prune to remove freeze-damaged split stems and remember any pruning will result in new shoots or branches just below your cuts if the plant has energy to bounce back.

Over the next couple of months, we will get a much better idea of what shrubs, bulbs or perennials we have lost and what plants will bounce back. Wait on dramatic action until we see how nature responds this spring.

Even as you worry about your existing landscape, don’t miss the fun, wonder and satisfaction of growing your own fresh food. The next couple of weeks are the prime season to plant seed potatoes, onion plants, strawberries, rhubarb, horseradish, as well as lettuce, carrots, radish, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower and many other cool-season crops.

This is also the time to apply liquid or granular herbicides to kill crabgrass, goatheads, sandburs and other summer weeds before they germinate.

Rodd Moesel serves as president of Oklahoma Farm Bureau and was inducted into the Oklahoma Agriculture Hall of Fame. Email garden and landscape questions to