November 20th, 2009
Freeze Warning

new buds on rose Ducher
Buds and tender new growth (red) on the ‘Ducher’ rose.

We Austin gardeners are living in heady times. The last two winters have been very mild. Last year I didn’t even get a killing freeze in my garden (although I know others in who Austin did). As a result, plants that usually die back to the ground–like the duranta and the Port St. Johns creeper–kept growing and flowering year around. Tender perennials that we treat as annuals–such a jalapeno pepper–demonstrated that they are indeed perennials. My aloe vera that I planted outside has survived three winters and grown and flowered. It produces so many pups and is so heat and drought tolerant that I keep planting it all over the garden. And worse, I’ve started collecting its cousins. There are 400 species of aloe and dozens of different ones are available in Austin nurseries. Some are reputed to be hardy but aloe vera is not. So far the aloe vera has reacted to the cold by turning slightly red but recovered quickly.

Aloe barbadensis
Aloe vera. I planted these in 2006. Since then they’ve doubled in size, multiplied, and flowered.

The aloe vera was only the beginning. Last winter I got tired of lugging plants I could barely carry into the house when a freeze threatened only to lug them back out again a couple of days later when temperatures returned to the 70s. So, I planted them out in the garden, too. If Austin gets several hard freezes this year will it be the end of my lemon tree, my cut leaf philodendron, two different kinds of asparagus fern, and my kalanchoe?

Kalanchoe dagriemontiana
The kalanchoe is forming new buds. These will turn to mush in a freeze.

Why do I keep buying new frost-sensitive plants like the allspice bush and the Natal plum?

As I continue planting (Austinites do most of our planting in the autumn so that our plants can have a chance to establish themselves before our deadly summer), I keep wondering if we aren’t headed for a reversal of fortune. We’ve been riding a non-freeze plant survival wave, living recklessly based on short-term memories. The forecast for this El Niño winter is colder than normal.

Established plants have responded to Austin’s recent rains after our two year drought as if it were spring. Several normally spring-blooming plants are flowering now and everything is putting out new growth. Even in normal years, many of our plants don’t go dormant and our ground never freezes. I often have roses in bloom at Christmas. Although on average Austin has a dozen nights of freezing temperatures, these nights are interspersed with days in the 60s, 70s, and even 80s. (If you delight in statistics, see the freeze dates at Camp Mabry between 1997 and 2006.)

Earlier this week, November 17th, the National Weather Service issued its first freeze warning for parts of our county. This should not have surprised us. The average is first freeze is December 2nd and as recently as 2005, our first freeze was also November 17th.

If the garden is unprepared and vulnerable, I think Austin gardeners are even more so. On Twitter, our responses fell into one of three camps: those who hurriedly covered plants and brought them inside, those who decided their plants were just going to have to tough it out, and those who gambled that while a freeze might hit other parts of Travis County, our micro-climate was probably safe. I was in the latter group and I won my bet with the weather. This time.

I need to get prepared. When it comes to Austin weather, anything can happen. In 1980, on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, it snowed.

by M Sinclair Stevens

14 Responses to post “Freeze Warning”

  1. From Laura, south Austin:

    Funny, but I also realized I wasn’t ready for a freeze this week and that I needed to get ready NOW even if it doesn’t freeze all winter. Of your three catagories, I fell into the hastily-cover-a-few-plants group.

    You know, I don’t know which is worse: running out to cover plants in the dark and cold after work or watering for two hours every night in our deep-fryer heat.

    My vote for worst garden chore remains watering. I’m glad I haven’t had to do it for almost two months. — mss

  2. From Pam/Digging:

    I was in the latter group too and also won the bet. Sooner or later that freeze will get us though.

    I was surprised you were so blasé. Especially since you’ve only had one winter in this new garden. Is it because you don’t have a lot of tender plants there? — mss

  3. From Rachel from Austin:

    I fell into the “tough it out” group mostly because I was willing to gamble that my micro-climate was safe the other night. Most of my plants do have to tough it out in the winter, but there are several that get brought inside (or into the shed) and covered just in case, when I’m not willing to make that gamble.

    The first actual freeze always seems to come out of nowhere, though – I’m not looking forward to that evening’s panicked race around the yard.

  4. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    I enjoyed following the “tweets” of the Austin garden bloggers when that freeze was predicted. Here, of course, after the first freeze, we get more of the same and so we kick back and relax until spring.

    But we also wonder about those plants we have that are pushing our zone limits. Will they return in the spring?

    The first freeze tweets were amusing. Glad to know you enjoyed them too. I wondered if people who have a real winter thought Austin gardeners were a bit crazy. — mss

  5. From Janie:

    I am the last-minute-dashing-around-the-yard-trying-to-cover-everything-and-always-having-that-gnawing-feeling-that-you-forgot-something one too!

    I love that you put all that aloe in a bed like that. I bet it is gorgeous when it blooms. I may have to dig some of mine and put it in a straight bed.

    What am I saying? I know I have to dig some, it is way too crowded, but where would I put it? I need more land!

  6. From eliz:

    We want the plants we want, no matter what a pain in the a they are. I bring many plants inside for the winter, but wouldn’t be able to run in and out with them. That is one good thing about the north–we know what we’ll get. Right now I am thankful for each day of warmish weather.

  7. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    You know, except for a couple of weeks a year, Fort worth has the same climate as Austin–its just in those couple of weeks we’ll get lows in the high teens, ususally for 36 hours straight at least, and often with a wind chill factor below 10 degrees…otherwise we could grow Aloes, the more tender Agave varieties, etc…what a difference a three hour drive makes…that said, I am experimenting with some new plants this winter: Eucalyptus citridorea and the silver dollar Eucalyptus; Arctostaphylos “Howard McMinn” (Manzanita native to California–its a longshot for the summer humidity/heat); I planted a Salvia clevelandii, native to the San Diego foothills and Baja, last year–it survived the winter lows of 19 and the summer heat but it looks confused!

  8. From Annie in Austin:

    Last year my garden froze three times when yours wasn’t touched, MSS – no way can I ignore a frost warning, even though it meant hauling plumerias into the garage. It didn’t freeze here but the temperatures dipped low enough to damage the basil plants, admittedly a wimpy breed.

    I like the smaller Meyer’s Lemon, Thai Lime, Allspice, and Thanksgiving Cactus so much that I’ll share my crowded breakfast room with them, and will carve out space in the garage for the plumeria and stapelia. The aloe vera will probably end up in the shed and the Staghorn fern will come in and out all winter long.

    Unprepared and vulnerable? For me, keeping the tropicals outside in sun and air until the very last minute had little to do with being surprised or in denial – and the hasty move wasn’t intended to amuse those with designated plant rooms or greenhouses who can move plants inside in a timely fashion.

    It had more to do with giving my plants sunlight and giving my husband legroom for as long as possible.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Hmmm. I can’t help but worry that you took this post wrong. What I’m trying to say is that many of us, especially me, have been lulled into a false sense of complacency by a couple of years of mild winters. Micro-climate in Austin makes a huge difference in the severity of a freeze, and, as I have pointed out elsewhere, your garden is my standard example of places that gets hit by the weather hard–whether it’s freezes or hail storms. As a result, you have developed strategies that many of us have not, including making plant covers and having lights ready to warm the air around your most tender plants. Maybe I should have pulled the quotes from Twitter to provide more context. I was in the process of writing this cautionary post before the first freeze warning but it came before I was ready (just like in the garden). I wasn’t singling you or anyone else out to be amused by–it was the collective response that I found interesting–especially the number of people who shrugged their shoulders and decided not to worry. I was among those and we will be caught out eventually. Then, tears. — mss

  9. From Annie in Austin:

    Nah, you didn’t say anything wrong, MSS. When KEYE issued the warning it was nearly 4 PM and other things were going on – trying to get plants inside really screwed up my afternoon!

    Your post made me remember how PO’d that warning made me and how much I envy people who have good windows and space for plants indoors. Envy does seem to be an unwanted but undeniable effect of garden blogging!


    Glad to know I didn’t say something to upset you. I didn’t even hear about the freeze warning until after it was dark and then via someone tweeting that they felt peer pressure to go cover their plants. I don’t have a good place to keep mine inside either. The mud room is too dark to be a permanent home so I’m constantly bringing pots in and taking them out. Some plants (like the lemon, the philodendron, and the kalanchoe) just got too big for me to lift. That’s why I took the gamble and put them in the ground. — mss

  10. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    Austin must be one of the most challenging places to garden. Since it is nearly the Season, you could try the method used by Californians, such as Leslie at Growing a Garden in Davis. She puts Christmas lights on her lemon when a freeze threatens. The lights give off enough heat to keep the plant from freezing. It’s interesting how El Nino means colder for you, warmer for me.

    Austin’s crazy because we have really warm days in between our freezes. Annie does the trick with the Christmas tree lights. Sounds like a good idea. El Niño is colder for us mostly because it is rainier and the accompanying cloud cover keeps our day time highs from climbing like they do when it’s sunny. –mss

  11. From Linda Lehmusvirta Austin Texas:

    Yes, our weather is a constant gamble. But I’ve been through enough of it that I take what comes. What makes it makes it. I’ll cover precious ones (especially when new) but respect and encourage the survivors.

  12. From Meredith:

    We had a freeze? Oops! Guess you know what my plants had to do — tough it out! Last year my garden was brand new, and every freeze I was out there watering and covering my babies in sheets. My poor husband had to haul plants into the garage and back out, over and over again.

    This year I have so many more plants. I’ll water and protect as many as I can, but many will have to tough it out — I can’t cover or haul them all!

    We had a freeze warning. Some places in Travis County may have gotten below freezing but most of us were about 38°F. –mss

  13. From angelina:

    I know my climate is wildly different than yours but I think this is a fairly universal post because where I am I have to work to keep certain things alive as well. We usually don’t have harsh freezes but it almost always gets cold enough to damage or kill lemon trees. The night temperatures are creeping lower and lower (at about 36 is the lowest so far) and still i haven’t brought my treasured lemon tree to safety. I became so lazy because I got to learn to garden in Northern CA where things rarely freeze and the summer temps, while hot, don’t rival yours by a long shot.

    I have those elderberry twigs outside too that need to come in. Elderberry is pretty hearty once established but these are just now making the tiniest roots and shoots and if I don’t bring them in I’ll lose them.

    Maybe today will be the day I stop gambling with the weather.

  14. From Pam/Digging:

    To answer your question (just came back by), I probably do have more tender plants than I realize. But like you said, we central Austinites have been lulled by recent warm winters. I tend to be a non-coddler and will let plants take their chances. For example, I planted Jenny’s passalong tender Agave desmettiana in the ground, knowing I could lose it. I’ll throw a sheet over it when a real freeze comes, which is about the extent of my freeze-protection measures. And as Jenny told me, there’s more where that one came from. A freeing thought.

    All I have to do is look at old photos of my garden or read my garden journal to put a chill of fear in my heart. The first couple of years, I used to make lists of plants I killed but that got too depressing. It’s hard to lose plants you’ve nurtured from seed or small cuttings, even if one can start again next spring.– mss