Where have all the fireflies gone?


Hunting frogs at night along dark waterways, edged by cypress swamps is an interesting pastime, especially if the nearest town with streetlights is 10 miles of dirt road away.

The best time to hunt frogs is on a moonless night, where the headlight I wore would temporarily blind the frogs and make them easier to catch. I know this sounds a little barbaric, but how else is one going to enjoy the delicacy of fried frog legs – called “cuisses de grenouille” in five-star French restaurants. But hunting frogs is a story for another time.

The point is that, in the swamp and along the bayous that meander through them, a moonless night is pitch black. Pitch black except for the millions of tiny lights moving in the sky and the countless millions of unmoving stars behind them. The moving lights were not only in the sky. They extended into the dark cypress swamps on either side. They hovered above the black waters.  They swirled directly above my head.

Fireflies! Some synchronizing their chemical bioluminescence in unison, while others blinked on and off in a cacophony of light. Sometimes I would forget the frogs, turn off the headlight and simply drift with the sluggish current, lying back in my skiff as the light show passed above me.

That was, as human lifetimes go, a good many years ago.  A more recent experience occurred along Panther Creek perhaps eight or nine years ago. It was twilight and I was walking Leon, my now-deceased goofy boxer. I thought I saw a tiny pinpoint of light in the corner of my eye. Then another. I had heard from someone that people on the verge of a stroke (or was it heart attack) sometimes saw flashes of light.

Suddenly, a thousand flashing lights emerged. Immediately across the creek was a small meadow and the lights converged on it, floating around the thigh-high tops of native grass. And then, just before all light faded, a small herd of deer walked into the meadow. Their legs obscured by the tall grass, they appeared to be floating on fairy dust. I was speechless. Leon, who would have ordinarily charged after the deer, dropped his jaw and sat. It was one of the rarest and most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Several years ago, visiting a friend west of Willis, I saw about a dozen lonely fireflies flitting around his 10-acre property. And then nothing. I haven’t seen a firefly in several years, although I must believe that somewhere in southeast Texas and southern Louisiana, they still exist and perhaps thrive.

Fireflies are in the insect family Lampyridae, in the beetle order of Coleoptera. Their glow comes from the chemical luciferin. The name has the same Latin root as Lucifer, which basically means “light-bearer.”

 

Scientists are now studying the effects of luciferin in diagnosing tumors, cancer and muscular dystrophy, which may one day bring some true medical breakthroughs. They are also studying luciferin in preventing food spoilage and bacterial comtamination.

On the other hand, scientists are also studying why there has been such a dramatic decline in fireflies. They think that growing light pollution from enlarging human populations has a direct effect on them, as well as loss of habitat and increased insecticide use has dramatically reduced the populations.

I plan to go back one dark and moonless night to those three bayous and see if things have changed. If not, I may be treated to another awesome light show.

 

 

 

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The world under our feet


Living in our urban and suburban world, we most often think of the ground under our feet as a surface to put buildings and roads on, dig canals, and foundations and ponds, meanwhile plopping a few plants hither and thither to create what we think of as “landscapes.”

The “ground” as many of us call it is part of something much greater…part of our living planet, just as much as our dwindling forests, the air we breathe, and the plants and animals we eat…and interestingly, it plays a large part in all those as well.

For the “ground” is soil. It provides habitat for countless beings (there are more living things in a shovel full of soil than there are humans living on this planet). It is, as the Swiss Confederation reported recently, “the connecting element between the atmosphere and the groundwater.”

Our understanding of soil is just beginning to emerge as perhaps one of the 21st century’s greatest scientific breakthroughs.  Soil is the basis for food production, the habitat for innumerable organisms, a water filter and a natural store for carbon and water.

Here in North America, rock, ground down by glaciers, wind, water and other natural events, flowed down streams and rivers, deposited by floods and changing river beds, spread and deposited across the land.

In some places, large inland seas left huge deposits of organic material, as well as rocks and sand.

Sun, rain, frost and soil organisms worked together symbiotically in weathering the rock material, ultimately breaking it down into smaller and smaller particles. Slowly, soil took form. And in that form, plants and land animals began to thrive.

All the living beings that reside in the soil, all the minerals and elements that lay inside that structure, form not just a self-contained ecosystem which exists under our feet, but a truly ancient and rich ecosystem, tied inexorably to all the other ecosystems on the planet.

Plants for hot, hot-hot and hot-hot-hot Gulf Coast summers


That’s right. It’s hot-hot right now. That’s the comparative form of “more than just hot” along the Gulf Coast. And “hot-hot-hot” – is how we describe the superlative. That excessive warmth is going to be here in a few weeks.  I’ve even heard some say “hot-hot-hot-hot” which is pretty darn hot. For those of you who have just moved here, that heat usually arrives here in late August and early September.

Spend 10 minutes out in the sun at the warmest part of the day and whatever you’re wearing is going to be soaked. This is good, not bad, because sweating is our way of cooling off. As your body is depleted of water, you need to drink more fluids you lose through perspiration.

Plants do this too, in a way. They release oxygen and water through their stoma – small pores on the undersides of leaves. But plants don’t open their stomas at night- mainly because this process goes on during the photosynthesis process, and since there’s no sunlight at night, their pores remains closed.

Many plants tend to wilt in the heat. The wilting means they are losing more fluids through their stomata than they can take in through their roots. The deficit of water causes the plants to wilt. At this point, the plant suspends much if not all of photosynthesis action.

Savvy gardeners know that much of this wilting is temporary and not harmful to the plant, which may wilt in the hot afternoon, but perk up again at night, as the roots replenish the water supply. Chances are, though, when heavy wilting occurs, it could mean that the plant is either not native or not adapted to our harsh summer conditions.

Fortunately, there are many beautiful and hardy flowering plants that do exceptionally well along the Gulf Coast. Many of them are natives.

Here are some examples:

Coneflower (Dracopsis amplexicaulis) – Annual. 2-3 feet tall. Blooms April through July, sometimes August. Although it’s an annual, it will reseed readily.

Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides) – Perennial – Part of the verbena family, Texas lantana is a spreading shrub that blooms from April through October. Also called “ham and eggs,” it thrives in poor soil, but the soil must be well-drained. It may get a little unruly but kept pruned, it will do nicely in the yard. Plant it in a hot dry place where nothing else will grow. Cut it back in early spring.

Drummond phlox (Phlox drummondii) – Perennial and reseeding. Flowers are white, pink, rose red, or purple. The plant can grow between 6 and 20 inches tall. It blooms from April through August.

Bee balm (Monarda clonopardia L) – Perennial. This monarda blooms July through September.  White or pink to purple flowers which bumble bees love.

Gaillardia (Gaillardia pulchelle) – Annual, although may reseed. 1-2 ft. In warm winters, it may not die back at all. Blooms May through August. If it rains much, it may. bloom through September and October. Attractive to birds and bees.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – Perennial. 1-2 ft. Readily reseeds. Blooms June through October. Birds love the seeds of this plant and many people leave them in the garden all winter. The dry seed heads are quite attractive.

Giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) – Perennial. 3-6 ft. Has similar characteristics of its smaller cousin, the black-eyed Susan, except the seed heads are much larger.

Hinckley’s columbine (Aquillegia chrysantha) – Perennial. 1-3 ft. Blooms April, May, June. Originally found in Presidio County, Texas. It does well in the shade.

Lance-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) – Perennial . 1-4 ft. Forms large colonies. April – through August.  Birds love the seeds in winter.

These plants are only a tiny portion of the native and heat-tolerant plants that do well here. They provide colorful blooms and interesting foliage from native plants who have evolved throughout the millennia to live on available rainfall alone and plants that have adapted to our climate. For more information on native plants, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin has an exhaustive interactive list. The site also provides names and locations of native plant nurseries and seed companies.

 

 

Is the climate changing?  A conversation with a climate-change denier


I have a friend – I’ll call him “Cletus” – who is forever challenging me about climate change. Here’s a recent exchange I had with him. Now, Cletus is a nice guy. He’s gone out of his way to help me with some projects. I’ve done the same for him. But, when it comes to several subjects – like climate change – he becomes cantankerous.

Cletus: I wish you’d get off your liberal high-horse and just admit the truth. You actually don’t know if the climate is changing and you can’t prove it either.

Me: Well, I do know that increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is pretty symptomatic of a warming earth.

Cletus: That’s stupid. (Cletus likes that word. He also likes to spit out the word “liberal” as though a bug just flew into his mouth.) We’ve got tons of carbon dioxide in the air and have had for the last 6,000 years since the earth was created. Plants must take in carbon dioxide for photo-whatchamacallit.

Me: That’s true (I refuse to get drawn into the 6,000-year argument). But, there’s a lot more carbon dioxide trapped in the world’s oceans that there is in the air, Cletus.

Cletus: Yeah? So? Let it stay there.

Me: Well, that’s a great idea. But it’s escaping.

Cletus: Escaping? Where to? Outer space? (He says the last two words sarcastically.)

Me: No, into the atmosphere.

Cletus: Well, that’s good, isn’t it? More carbon dioxide for plants to make more oxygen. Which is what we humans need to breath, moron. (He likes “moron” too. Ad hominem remarks are part of Cletus’ repertoire.)

Me: Okay, let’s start over. How much carbon dioxide was in the air, say, 6,000 years ago? (I knew the reference to 6,000 years would get his attention.)

Cletus: How do you expect me to know that?

Me. Well scientists have figured it out. They drill down into the polar cap ice, pull out ice cores, and measure the amount of carbon dioxide trapped in different layers. And, they’ve discovered that there is many more times carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there was say six millennia ago.

Cletus: That still doesn’t explain anything.

Me: Follow me on this. The sun’s rays warm the earth. Are you okay with that?

Cletus nods.

Me: So during the day, the sun heats up the earth, right?

Cletus nods again.

Me: But if it continued to heat up the earth, eventually we’d burn up.

Cletus: You idiot. That’s what’s night’s for. To cool things off.

Me: (I think I got him). Exactly. The sun heats up the earth in the daytime, and at night, the earth cools off again, right? But what happens if the earth can’t cool off at night?

Cletus: That makes no sense.

Me: Remember the carbon dioxide we were talking about?

Cletus: Yep.

Me: Well, carbon dioxide can act as a sort of blanket. The sun warms the earth up, but the heat can’t escape at night, so the earth gets warmer. The more carbon dioxide in that blanket, the warmer it gets.

Cletus: But I ain’t felt it getting warmer. (I know Cletus knows the different between “ain’t” and don’t, but he likes to go country on me occasionally, just so he won’t lose his rustic charm.)

Me: No, because it’s not a lot right away. Just a little. Not even a degree. Just a small fraction of a degree. But it’s like a rock rolling down a hill. It starts off slow and gains speed the farther down it goes. But in this case, the hill may be 50 to 100 or more years long.

Cletus: So why does the carbon dioxide blanket get bigger.

Me: We may have been a little naughty. Burning things like fossil fuels adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Not only that, but as the earth gets warmer, the ocean, which has a lot more carbon dioxide than is in the air, begins to let go of the carbon dioxide trapped there. And the planet gets warmer still.

Cletus: Well, that all sounds well and good, but I still haven’t felt it getting warmer.

Me: But other creatures have. Seen those black-bellied whistling ducks around? They used to live no farther north than the valley. They’ve moved here. Why do you think that?

Cletus: Better places to eat?

Me: Well, yes. But birds and fish are much more sensitive to climate change than we are. Crested caracaras, also known as the Mexican eagle, have been spotted on the Harvey Toll Road. Heck, I’ve seen them just outside of Fredericksburg. Cedar waxwings are moving north out of Texas. Armadillos, the state mammal, has moved as far north as New York. A hundred years ago, the farthest north it ranged was southern Texas. Now, I don’t have a problem with those New Yorkers having to deal with armadillos digging up their backyards and vegetable gardens, but their movement up there is telling us something else is happening.

Cletus: Even if you’re right, a couple of degrees either way won’t matter.

Me: A couple of degrees can change or inhibit breeding and migratory patterns among wildlife. It can also change the kind of plants that animals feed on.

Cletus: I still think you’re an idiot, but you sure can speak gibberish good.

Me: We can talk some more about it when you want. Just come on over. I’ll be picking leaf-footed bugs off my tomatoes and dropping them into soapy water.

Cletus just gazes at me with that “ I’m so sad for you…how can you be so stupid” look before he jumps into his eight-cylinder dually, steps on the gas and roars down the road.

 

Neonicotinoids – Still killing butterflies and bees


A friend of mine purchased some plants at one of the big box stores the other day…some pretty pentas and salvias, along with a few other “fill-ins.”

When she removed the plants from their plastic pots, she was amazed – and horrified – to find, behind the plant marker, another smaller marker indicating that the plant had been treated with neonicotinoids.

In case you didn’t know, neonicotinoids are a new class of insecticides related to nicotine. The name actually means “new, nicotine-like insecticide.” Neonicotinoids affect receptors in the nerve synapse of insects.  Particularly toxic to insects, they can also harm vertebrates.

In a 2015 paper from the Environmental Science and Pollution Research group, an EU-sponsored organization,  neonicotinoids  can have lethal consequences on smaller bird species, and dangerous, but non-lethal effects on fish and mammals, including humans. See the report here.

Many growers treat seeds with neonicotinoids.  Since neonicotinoids are water soluble, they are also used in a spray. Neonicotinoids are systemic, which means once they are applied, they distribute throughout the plants vascular system – the stems, leaves, roots, flowers and seeds. They can exist in the plant anywhere from one to three years.

They are most dangerous to bees, for a number of reasons. Bees sipping nectar from a plant treated with neonicotinoids, or drinking moisture exuded from a plant (for instance corn sweats at night and bees are drawn to the moisture, are directly affected.

Growers know that aphids make plants less attractive, so they use neonicotinoids to kill the aphids. Aphids emit a sweet substance, that bees find attractive. Bees will also drink this.

Bees will also take neonicotinoid-affected pollen back into the hive with them, infecting larvae and adults alike.

Bees aren’t the only beneficial insects killed by neonic chemicals. Aphids love milkweed. Growers and nurseries spray milkweed with neonics to prevent aphids. But milkweed is the food source of the monarch butterfly larvae. When the monarch caterpillars hatch and begin eating the leaves, they die.

Home Depot and Lowes, two major big box stores, have pledged to phase out all neonicotinoids by 2018, and Home Depot has gone as far as to label those plants treated with neonics. However, gardeners need to look closely at the labels.

Ask your nursery if neonicotinoids have been used on the plants you are thinking of buying. Many locally-owned nurseries already know the dangers, and have taken measures to keep neonicotinoids out of their product stream. It still doesn’t hurt to ask.

Here is a list of brands that make and sell neonicotinoids, and under what names they are sold.

 

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Living on the edge (of the woods)


 

Population is growing – not just here in The Woodlands, or in Montgomery County, or in Texas, for that matter.

As that population grows, as new residential and commercial construction increases, the condition and size of natural habitat, where all varieties of species thrive, decreases. That may just be one of the facts of life of the 21st century.

Let’s talk about here in Montgomery County, and specifically in The Woodlands. Once, this area was a vast, contiguous tract of mostly pine forest. As development began, not only did the natural habitat area shrink, but it became fragmented.

While it may still resemble one, it no longer is a forest. It becomes, in effect, the edge of a forest, and is known to biologists, unsurprisingly, as the edge effect. Light, wind, temperature, moisture all change the dynamics of this ecosystem.

As we develop more “islands,” we change the requirements for native species of all types – birds, insects, mammals, plants, fungi and other flora and fauna.

Species which thrive deep in a forest are forced to abandon their habitat. The only species left are those which  thrive on the edges of a forest (or any native habitat). One might take a look at what’s left of the once magnificent Katy prairie to get an idea of what can happen to any habitat.

The species that are most affected by the loss of deep forest habitat are song birds. Decreasing the size of the forested area, and further fragmenting it with roads, reduces the living area of these species. A road cut through a forested area takes up a lot more room than just the thoroughfare. Increasing the edge of a forest also affects the reproductive abilities of many species.

Creating “islands” or forest edges without forests allows predators, of which there are many, easy access to many desirable species, including  the nests of song birds. These predators, which include racoons, cats (domestic and feral), rodents (not only rats – squirrels frequently raid nests for eggs or nestlings), skunks, snakes, oppossums, and predatory birds like the cowbird, who lays her eggs in the nest of a host species.

Is there a solution? Weighing the realistic needs of a human population against the retention of desirable species is a conundrum. Even in planned communities like The Woodlands, reduction of natural habitat for many species which once thrived here has been rampant.

End of rant.

Can we really smell rain?


We’ve all heard someone say “I smell rain,” as storm clouds gather. And we’ve probably heard experts say “rain has no smell.” As odd as it may seem, both answers are correct…well, sort of.

 

When a raindrop comes in contact with the earth (or any porous surface) it traps miniscule pockets of air. These air “bubbles” speed upwards very quickly and explode at the top surface of the drop. This, of course, takes place in milliseconds. Upon bursting, the bubbles release microscopic particles called aerosols.

The amount of these aerosol particles relies on how many raindrops hit the surface. The speed and number of the raindrops and the quality of the soil will determine how many of the aerosol droplets are released.

If close to the rain, we smell this rich earthy mineral odor right away. If farther away, temperature variations can cause wind to deliver it to our noses, even from many miles away.

The scent is called petrichor – a composite of two Greek words: “petra” meaning “stone,” and “ichor” meaning “the blood of the gods.”

Petrichor is basically composed of two substances: one is an oil that plants secrete during dry periods. The oil inhibits germination of seed. Plants hold onto this oil until it rains, then they release the oils.  These oils are encompassed in the tiny aerosol bubbles.

The second element is that rich, earthy smell, caused by microscopic, bacteria-like creatures called actinomycetes, which are released when the rain drop hits fertile soil. Actinomycetes are great nitrogen-fixing organisms. This means they can trap nitrogen from ozone and from the air and help soil retain it for later use by plants.  Actinomycetes exist in large numbers (read millions) in a teaspoon of good, fertile soil, and are part of an ecosystem that creates strong roots systems in turf grass and other plants. One family of actinomycetes, Streptomyces, provides us with many of the important antibiotics used in medicine.

A third element is ozone, which may or may not be present trapped in the aerosol. Ozone is formed during a thunderstorm. Lightning can split oxygen and nitrogen molecules which then forms nitric oxide. Rain brings this form of nitrogen directly into the ground. That’s why people say “everything looks greener” after a thunderstorm. It probably is greener, as plants take in lots of nitrogen from the rain, which helps them create more chlorophyll, thus greening up the plant leaves.

When someone says they smell rain coming, it’s probable that wind from a coming storm or rain event is carrying ozone, actinomycetes and oils from the soil and oils from plants. This goes into a person’s nostrils and is interpreted as “smelling rain.”

Enjoy the smell. It’s beneficial to humans, other animals and to the soil itself.

Ragged gardens beginning to flourish after January Freeze


I think spring is finally here. At least with these much warmer temperatures, the outside chance of a very late frost has dwindled significantly.

The warmer temperatures are coaxing the many wildflowers into growth spurts. My numerous amaryllis and St. Joseph lilies are blooming non-stop and my Dutch iris blooms are already a memory. My 10-foot tall angel trumpet growth succumbed to the January freeze, but only the part above ground was affected. All of them have again sprouted from the roots, looking healthy and strong. I gave them a little slow release organic fertilizer to help them on their way.

The lion’s ear in my front yard had reached over six feet last summer, but it too froze back to the ground. It is now sending out sprouts, as are the four or five varieties of lantana, plumbago, night blooming jasmine, and Texas star hibiscus.

I did lose my ginger root plants (Zingiber officianale) …at least they’re not up yet. But my ginger lily (Hedychium sp.) is looking so well that I have already divided it.

Based on all that circumstantial evidence (also using the time-tested lore of budding pecan trees), I would venture to say that spring has arrived.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes a “Day of the Last Spring Freeze” map, which roughly corresponds to the U.S.D.A. Cold Hardiness Zone Map. The USDA map is the standard which gardeners and growers can use to find out which plants are most likely to thrive in a location.

Both maps draw a ragged line across Montgomery County. The jagged line, which runs southwest from Cleveland in the east to Magnolia in the west, currently divide Montgomery County almost in half. The northern part, which includes about three-fourths of Conroe, all of Willis, Cut and Shoot, Montgomery, and about half of Magnolia, is in Zone 8B. The southern part is in Zone 9A. The difference is that the area designated as 9A has become, on average, about 10 degrees warmer than the northern part of the line.

The southern part includes The Woodlands, Kingwood, New Caney, about a fourth of Conroe, Oak Ridge North, Shenandoah, Porter, about half of Magnolia and Spring. The line has two long prongs, one which stretches north almost to Lake Conroe, and another that almost reaches Dobbin Lake.

My plants can’t read maps, but they generally do know when the ground and ambient air is warm enough to stick their little green arms out of the ground. Sometimes, they might be surprised, but chances are, they’re not going to be this year.

So, you can start trimming back the dead parts of your plants. If you’re doing compost, the pruned parts make a great addition. Just make sure you cut all the hardwood stems into very small pieces or shred them.

Texas Earthkind  offers a great list of which ornamentals do well here, Hundreds of beautiful plants are featured.

In the vegetable garden, it’s almost too late to plant tomatoes, although if you’re brave enough, you can try. Early Girl tomatoes produce in about 55 days from the day you put them in the ground. That means, if you set them in today, they’ll be producing around the middle of May. Longer producing varieties may not produce until June. Then nighttime temperatures may have risen so high that the tomatoes will stop setting fruit.

Many people planted beans the first week of March and cucumbers the second or third week. Mine are about 8 inches high already, although my cucumbers just sprouted last week. The Montgomery Master Gardener website (http://www.mcmga.com) has a printable calendar on what vegetables to plant when.

 

 

Earthworms and the art of grass cutting


“It’s time to mow the grass.” This was one of the most dreaded statements of my young life. Our acre-and-a-half lawn loomed, a seemingly unending expanse of a green enemy that required regular haircuts. Even with a self-powered lawn mower, the process required several hours of sweaty, unfulfilling work.

We never bagged the grass clippings. Instead they lay where they fell. In a day or two, the clippings disappeared. Wondering where those clipping went never occurred to me. I was just glad that we didn’t have to empty heavy grass catchers.

The ground beneath the lawn was full of earthworms. Just throw a pan of soapy water on the lawn, wait a few minutes, and collect enough worms to catch a mess of perch from our pond.  I didn’t make the connection between the earthworms, the lush green grass, and the disappearing grass clippings. Nor did we understand the part they played in the enormous ecosystem that lived under our very feet.

Charles Darwin, almost a century and a half ago, did understand. His book, “Earthworms”, published in 1881, was the result of years of study into these seemingly insignificant creatures.  In his manuscript he noted “It may be doubted whether there are as many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”

It wasn’t until I read this study that I realized that earthworms were the major reason that the grass clippings were disappearing. At night, they emerge from the earth and pull the clippings down into the soil, where they eat and digest them. The bacteria in the worms’ digestive tract breaks down and inoculates the material with beneficial bacteria. This then passes into the soil.

The bacteria then join untold millions of other bacteria, protozoans, microscopic insects and fungi to convert the soil into a rich mélange, which in turn, provides nutrients to the grass (and other plants).

Had I understood this process when I was mowing the lawn, the odious chore would have turned miraculously into an interesting and fulfilling science experiment. University research now confirms that children who understand this relationship develop important skills and healthy qualities.

Involving youngsters in the relationship between healthy soils and plants, including lawns, vegetable gardens and flower gardening, instills healthy qualities.

  • Knowledge of this unseen world instills a real sense of accomplishment and responsible attitudes.
  • Delving into the way plants and soil interact increases skills such as problem solving and nurturing
  • Understanding this allows them to understand and accept delayed gratification, failure and success.
  • The attitudes it instills helps them increase their abilities in science, art, reading and social studies.
  • Involvement in these disciplines helps develop interaction between parents and children
  • It encourages the development of positive relationships.
  • It expands their understanding of a work ethic.

And, who knows. It might even encourage them to gripe less when they have to cut the grass or eat their vegetables.

 

You can start cleaning up your gardens now…perhaps


My yard is a ragged mess. Many of my plants were damaged by the hard freeze in January.  In years past, I have waited until March to begin pruning damaged vegetation, but the pecan tree outside my window has swollen buds. According to gardening folklore, pecan trees begin to bud after the last freeze has passed and spring weather is truly here. I’m not sure about that, but I have begun pruning already.

There are a number of plants which are designated “herbaceous perennials.” This means that although the part of the plant above ground dies back, the root system is still alive. They will sprout again from the roots if the roots have survived cold weather. There are many plants falling into this category. Hibiscus is one of those. I have only the two varieties of Texas Star hibiscus, red and white, but they have already begun to sprout from the base of the previous year’s growth.

Because of mild winters here, many plants can stand moderately cold weather, and short periods below freezing. However, hard freezes like the one we had in January, froze many of these back, leaving them brown, wilted, and, for the most part, just plain ugly.

All of my salvia has died back to the ground. I’m not worried though. Salvia has a strong root system and I see some sprouts already. Same thing with Turk’s Cap, both the small varieties and the “giant” varieties.

Thus, I’m pruning – a lot. Here are some chores you can do now to clean up your flower beds and gardens, and get ready for spring beauty. If you’re not sure whether a certain plant is a perennial or not, there are lists available from Texas A&M and other universities. You might also try Texas Earthkind – a compendium of annuals and perennials. Simply conduct an internet search for Texas Earthkind.

I’m a pretty ruthless pruner. If I do see growth from the root system, I will cut the dead part back to the ground. If I’m not sure, I take a pocket knife, and gently scrape off the first layer of bark or skin of the plant, about have the size of a little finger nail. If I see green under the scrape, that part of the plant is still viable, and you shouldn’t cut it back. For larger plants you may want to make several scrapes down the stem. That’s because the top of the stem may have died, but the bottom part of the stem is alive. I am pruning some of these back, but not all the way to the green. That’s because I’m still a little cautious. If I cut these below the green, they may sprout out there – and if there is another freeze, the sprouting plants may suffer. I’ll cut some of the dead parts off, but I’ll wait until March to cut the back to the green part.

Salvia, phlox, lantana, butterfly bush, Copper Canyon daisy, coneflower, Brugmansia, yarrow, tansy, gaura, Turk’s Cap, I generally cut back mercilessly to the ground. While I’m at it, the rock roses, Carolina jessamine, esperanza, and many other plants are going to get a good haircut.

Interestingly, my crinums were the first to go under the knife. If you’ve raised crinums, you know that they are pretty indestructible, but the tips of the blades will freeze, and the damaged ends will stick to the tips of adjoining leaves and then blacken. These I cut just below the blackened area, and it’s okay to do that now. Some gardeners cut them all the way back to the bulb, but I like to keep as much foliage as I can. I also pulled out dead blades which had fallen to the ground.

Some of my native irises suffered a bit of freeze damage. I just trimmed these back below the dead leaves. I did the same with daylilies.