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Winter Storm Leaves Austin Cacti Frozen and Damaged

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Austin’s plants feel a bit like we do after the winter storm. Broken, battered and hoping to recover. Once tall opuntia cactus in the area are now reduced to prickly pear mush. Agave leaves now lying in reduced to prickly pear mush. Agave leaves now lying in lumps on the ground. John Dromgoole, who runs the Natural Gardener in Oak Hill, can identify how they’re feeling.

“That’s what tree hugging is about, this connection to the natural world,” he said. “Go out in the countryside, walk through the neighborhood, you can really feel it.”

Dromgoole is a bit of a throwback to the hippie days of Austin. He turned an interest in organic gardening, and using native drought-tolerant plants, into a career that has spanned more than 40 years. He has never seen this happen after a freeze.

“It’s shocking. Plants that never lost their leaves, you know for the natives, even, that are well adapted plants – this time they’re having some problems,” Dromgoole said.

But what type of problems are they having? Chris Vasquez at East Austin Succulents explained why the cold was so devastating to cacti, and it might have a familiar ring to this week.

“It’s helpful to think about it like the pipes in your home,” he said. “Because cacti and succulents are so adapted to storing water within their own bodies, the issue is when it freezes, the water expands, it breaks those sturdy cell walls that they have, and everything just falls apart from there.”

For these parts of the plant, it’s over. They are not healing themselves. Vasquez recommends cutting those sections off eventually. But for now, Vasquez says wait.

“What I’m going to recommend to people is patience. And I know that that’s not really an active solution right now, but we’re waiting for signs of life,” he said. “You’re likely going to end up cutting it down to the very base. I wouldn’t cut it all the way to the ground, leave a bit of growth on the ground, so to speak.”

A sentiment echoed by Dromgoole for trees and shrubs, as well.

“Well, holding off for a while is the real answer. You know, let’s see what happens, because there may be some regrowth,” he said.

Dromgoole recommends if you do have to start over on your lawn, walk through the neighborhood in a few weeks, see what survived and plant more of those.

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