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Stories From Our Frozen Texan Gardens

The stories below are reflections on how the polar vortex freeze impacted many beloved gardens in Houston. When I received Patricia Montanes' email describing her garden after the freeze, I was inspired to include it in a blog and invite other local Houstonians to add their experience of how their garden surmounted temperatures not seen in our region since 1989.

There is Always Renewal- Patricia Montanes

I am hoping that your home and surroundings are not terribly affected by the freeze. When I saw the photo of your beautiful garden, I immediately imagined how it looks right now. Mine looks just like a plant cemetery. I have spent most of my free time gardening since the freeze.

Pruning dead branches, removing dead leaves, pulling out dead plants, it sounds like a chore, but to my surprise it has offered me an opportunity to reflect, a thin space so to speak. I find myself speaking to the plants like my grandma used to do, caressing their trunks, thinking that they can feel me, that love transcends into and onto all kinds of life. There are also signs of new life in many places, little shoots courageously breaking out, tiny specks on the soil that tell me that life is a miracle.

When my two young granddaughters find me in the garden, they scoot next to me and watch me love the plants and I sense that they sense that there is something special happening here. Maybe, hopefully, I am planting few seeds in their souls.

Patricia Montanes is a Houstonian Colombian-American physician, grandmother, writer, and gardener.

My Garden - Geraldina Interiano Wise

I have/had a Giving Garden. When designing my modern Hacienda, it was clear that the garden would inform how the house was used. From the Court of Oranges in Córdoba, Spain dating back to 8th Century, to the lime and mango trees in my family home on the San Salvador volcano, a Giving Garden was in my blood, and Patience would have to be my middle name.

I planted seedlings of Valencia oranges, Ruby Red grapefruits, Meyer lemons and kumquats in 2006, along with bananas and a vegetable garden. Then came the papaya trees from seed, the Mexican lime and the latest addition- a key lime tree for Mother’s Day 2018. Patience gave me hardy trees, that have been through 3 hard freezes as of today, well acclimated and deep rooted. I have sold my bounties to raise money for the Home for Children with Cerebral Palsy in San Salvador, have shared crops with friends and churches, have honed a mean Key Lime pie, and continue my mother-in-law’s kumquat jelly. Perhaps most importantly, my Giving Garden has taught my children and grandchildren how to live in unison with our planet. This cycle of nature informs my art, so my Giving Garden lives on everywhere my art goes.

The infamous day the Polar Vortex descended on my cheerful, bountiful, and fragrant crops, I went outside to thank them, out loud, for all that they have given me, my family and beyond. I thanked them for the intoxicating scent of their blooms every early spring. I gave them permission to become part of the cycle of life. I will await- patiently-their return to the world of the living.

Geraldina Interiano Wise is an artist with a background in architecture. Her themes are coexistence and connectivity- to the planet and to each other. Her first garden was in the San Salvador volcano, and her giving garden is in West University Place.

Follow her on Instagram @wise_arts

A Trial by Ice - Maya Kanwal

My garden beds have rarely achieved a visually harmonious symmetry, as much as I appreciate that in other gardens, covet it even. In my garden, as in my life, I’ve had to accept that my curiosity, impulsive experimentation and nostalgic fantasies are anathema to order. My garden is a bawdy inn of stragglers from back home in Pakistan, transients and wannabes I’ve met on my travels, and yes, locals with generations of roots in our Texas soil. My catalogs say that we’re in hardiness zone 9b, but my plants never learned to read. Some groupings of plants have gathered into convivial little pods over the seasons, others continue to jostle for elbow room at the bar. I’ve had to break up a fair number of brawls and drag some unfortunate casualties out to the curb, wondering why I ever let them in.

Most of the old timers barely paid heed as Hurricane Harvey barreled through, and some even tell stories of Ike, from when they were wee little things in pots. It took winter storm Uri to bring them all to their knees. Well, most of them. The jasmine vines are skeletal, both the Arabian and the Confederate. Don’t bother inquiring after the hibiscus, and the ferns are too crabby for small talk. The dwarf mandarin might come back, but there will be no fruit this year—the tender blossoms had been fooled into baring their fragrance by the warm advances of early February.

And yet, and yet, though I forgot to cover the mint, it remained nonplussed, and the scraggly thyme nearby was positively cheeky. My gardenia, in a shocking revelation after the covers were removed, might be the only one remaining in the neighborhood.

The honeysuckle had taken shelter behind the jasmines, and emerged all green-lobed—it’s flowering already. And the many Texas heritage roses? They peeked through the tears in the ice-laden frost blankets every hoary morning and asked where everyone had gone. Well, the sprinkler system’s burst, so they’re going to have wait for service. They don’t mind. They’ve gotten by here for generations.

Maya Kanwal is a Pakistani-American writer who gardens in Houston, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @mayakanwal

Listening for Springtime - Lana Rigsby

I look to my garden as a kind of calendar, enjoying the way its changes mark the seasons’ subtle rhythms. Azaleas bloom cheerful and bright in March then are replaced by gardenias—wanton, voluptuous, heavily perfumed flowers with iridescent petals—as summer days grow steamy.

Fuchsia blossoms from the crape myrtles settle on the pool’s surface during the weeks of August's otherworldly heat. In the fall there are sweet limes and satsumas, little globes as hard as rocks and the color of canaries, that turn soft and delicious just after Christmastime. The rare frost that kisses the garden in February is usually harmless and beautiful; if you’re gentle you can slide ice off still-green Hawthorn leaves to create perfect transparent leaf-replicas.

For the past few years I have sensed this lovely rhythm becoming disjointed. The azaleas halfheartedly popped some skinny blooms at New Years this year—far too early—and were promptly murdered by last week’s freak freeze. Not green and ice-slick, but crackly-brown-dead. The boxwoods are dusted with frostbite. Even the fig ivy looks gone.

I don’t miss the plants; given half a chance Nature will put them right back in my garden. What I do miss is the certainty that Nature is in charge, that the seasons’ rhythms are too essential a thing for we humans to have messed up. Over the next weeks I will be listening for Spring to tell me that everything is okay… to tell me that we still have time.

Lana Rigsby is a third-generation gardener whose mother, a commercial herb farmer, taught her how to listen for what a garden has to say.

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