Hydrate your plants before the winter season arrives

It is time to hydrate everything now.

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A tree is watered on Sept. 1 to saturate the soil to prepare it for winter.
John Zvirovski / The Jamestown Sun
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It’s amazing what a difference a few years can make in the weather patterns in our region. For many years we had seen higher than normal rain and snowfalls, and then over the past three years it has been the opposite extreme. We had a very dry autumn two years ago and then a very dry season most of last year. We made up a little with some rain and a wet winter, but after May that all changed again and things have become extremely dry again.

This week is beginning to feel a little like autumn and we don't know if it will remain dry or if we will finally get some rain. Either way, this is the time to get our plants ready for the winter season and freeze-up. It is time to hydrate everything. Like a runner preparing for a marathon by drinking plenty of fluids before the race and during the event, our plants also need to take in moisture now before they enter their dormancy for the cold winter ahead.

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John Zvirovski, Jamestown Sun garden editor
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

If our plants go into the winter without becoming hydrated, we increase their chances of perishing by the time spring arrives. This is not only the case for our perennials but for our young trees and shrubs and all the evergreen species.

The best time to hydrate your trees and shrubs is before they lose their leaves. The plant is more apt to draw up water into its system when it is still in the active stage before dormancy sets in. The main reason to hydrate your plants now is to allow the highest concentration of moisture to enter the outer stems and the smallest branches of the plants, as these are the first to desiccate or die in prolonged dry periods.

The best rule of thumb for watering a tree or shrub properly is to place a hose near the base of the plant and allow the soil to saturate all the way to the drip line of the tree. The drip line is the outermost width that the branches span out from the trunk and straight down from that point. The soil should be saturated to a depth of 4 inches deep for proper hydration within this area. Large trees do not require this amount of moisture as their roots reach deep into the soil. Trees that have a trunk diameter of 6 inches or less are the ones that benefit most, along with the shrub species.


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A good way to test if your soil is hydrated to the proper depth is to take a core sample near the outer drip line. Simply take a metal or PVC pipe that is one inch thick and push it into the ground 4 inches. When you pull it from the ground, check the bottom of the soil core in the center to make sure it is wet. If it is dry, continue to water for optimum conditions.

Evergreen trees and shrubs are much more susceptible to winter desiccation due to dry conditions than their deciduous counterparts. Their needles and scales transpire all season long, so it is imperative to make sure they have plenty of moisture to make it through the season. In most cases, where the plant is too dry, severe winter burn will occur during the early spring months causing an orange or red tint to the branches. If this is severe enough, it will kill the branch and the growth buds, causing the inevitable removal of limbs from the plant. This is never a good option for the shape and vigor of the tree in the years to come.

Evergreen varieties contain a fibrous root system, where 60-80% of their roots are within the first 2 feet of soil. Saturating this upper layer will greatly improve the health and vigor of your plant to make it into the spring season. Arborvitae species are the most susceptible to desiccation as their flat scale-like branches contain a very large surface area for the evaporation of water to occur during cold, dry, windy conditions. Pay extra attention to these types, especially if they have been recently planted.

Always focus on the young and newly planted items first, as they will require the most attention and care. Then work your way up to some of the older trees to make sure you have covered all the items in your yard that will benefit from this process.

A sprinkler works well in the garden to hydrate your perennials. Their roots don’t nearly go as deep as the trees and shrubs. I also leave most of the dead perennial stems on over the winter to ensure they capture the snow for a good winter cover. In a dry season, any snow around your plants will be of high value, not only for protection against the snow but also for moisture during the spring thaw.

The trees might go into an early dormancy this year due to the current dryness levels. Hydrating your plants now will only benefit them once the ground freezes and winter is upon us once again. We have no guarantees that this winter will provide any more moisture over any other winter, so be proactive and start your watering soon. The marathon into winter will begin before you know it, so make sure you hydrate plenty before the season is upon us. The results will only be advantageous to all your plants once spring arrives.

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