Prepare for a Stress-free Winter…for your Plants!

Published by Bucks Country Gardens in Plants

Autumn is upon us and in the not too distant future the myriad of colorful leaves will fall, leaving deciduous trees and plants bare. But did you know that caring for trees and shrubs is a year-round activity? And that there are certain things we need to do now and throughout the fall to prepare plants for the upcoming winter months? Surprisingly, the number one cause of plants not surviving the winter season is stress. Humans definitely feel stress and even animals, but most people probably don’t consider the fact that plants can become stressed as well, which in turn can cause irreversible damage.

The most important thing you can do for your trees and plants this fall is to make sure they get enough water.Without adequate watering, drought conditions can ensue and cause plants to become stressed which in turn, makes them vulnerable to diseases and insect attacks as well as severe winter damage including “winter burn” or “winter kill”. In these cases, the dead areas of the plant cannot be rejuvenated. Water is also very important to many plant processes that allow trees to protect themselves from attack and to photosynthesize and grow.

Another side benefit of watering in the fall is that tree roots grow most vigorously in spring AND autumn. Take advantage of your second chance of the year to ensure your plants’ root systems are the healthiest they can be.

How do I know when to water?

The easiest way to check soil moisture is to take a long (8″-plus) screwdriver and poke it into the soil. It will pass easily into moist soil, but be difficult to push into dry soil. If you can’t poke it in at least 6″, it’s time to water. This technique works best in clay and loam soils.

How much watering is enough?

Generally speaking, for newly planted trees and shrubs, water is crucial throughout the first year. You can’t rely on rainwater alone to fulfill your plant’s needs. Water when the soil is dry; for trees, apply approximately 15–20 gallons of water once a week from March until the air and soil temperatures reach around 40˚, and as often as twice a week during hot and dry weather. Trickle water onto the soil surface using a hose, or allow water to seep from a Gator Bag placed around the base of the tree or shrub.

For shrubs, apply roughly the same number in gallons of water as is the size of the plant container. For example, if you are planting a 5-gallon rhododendron, then use approximately five gallons of water. Water once a week or more often during dry weather. Every tree or shrub may require more or less watering, depending on soil type, plant location, sun or shade, etc. For specific questions regarding your specific plant, any one of our knowledgeable nursery and greenhouse salespeople will gladly assist you. Call or stop anytime; the Garden Center is open seven days a week.

For established plants, most tree roots are concentrated in the upper 12″ to 18″ of soil. When watering, provide a deep, soaking irrigation to the entire area beneath the tree canopy and extending several feet beyond the drip line. Ideally, you should moisten the soil to a depth of 10″ each time you water. To prevent rot, don’t apply water to the area directly around the trunk. Soaker hoses are an efficient way to water trees because they’re porous and release water slowly. Encircle a tree with a spiral of soaker hose and run it for an hour or more — as long as it takes for water to penetrate 6″ or 8″, using the screwdriver test.

Except for when rainfall is abundant, you can stop watering deciduous plants soon after their leaves drop, but continue to water evergreens into winter until the ground freezes. When caring for evergreens, keep in mind that they transpire large amounts of water through their foliage all winter and especially on sunny, windy, dry days. This water must be replaced or the plants will develop “winter burn” which is an extreme state of dryness. These damaged, dead areas cannot be reversed. In extreme situations, drought can be the sole cause of death in trees and shrubs, however it is more likely that stressed plants will attract deadly secondary causes.

And don’t forget to mulch!

Water can evaporate quickly into dry air and mulch helps to conserve it. It also control weeds, keeps roots cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, prevents lawn mower disease and also prevents soil compaction. The best way to apply mulch is to maintain a 2”–4” layer of mulch around your tree or shrub, taking care to not pack it against the trunk. Always weed and cultivate the soil prior to mulching.

Fall is a fantastic time of year for planting. The warm days and cool nights of autumn create the ideal scenario for plants to take root and become established before the freeze of winter arrives and without the heat and dryness of summer or potential excess rainfall of spring. Whether your garden or landscape contains newly planted or established trees and shrubs, water is essential for preparing them to survive the harsh elements of winter. You will be rewarded with a glorious spring landscape filled with brilliant, beautiful blooms and healthy, happy, stress-free plants and humans alike.

David Jones | Horticulturist, Arborist and Customer Service

Adriene Vesci | Graphic Designer and Advertising Coordinator