KC Gardens

Dennis Patton: Water trees and shrubs now — just a trickle is needed

Blue Spruce
Blue Spruce

Have you been digging around in the soil lately? If you have you would know that it is dry.

Last week I worked with the Kansas Forest Service and the Heartland Tree Alliance to plant 15 trees as part of an Emerald Ash Borer planting. Digging the holes was not easy as even down 12 to 18 inches the soil was, as they say, “bone-dry.”

According to the latest US Drought Monitor the Kansas City area is in an abnormally dry period and the National Weather Service last week posted that September was the eighth driest on record. This is quite a change from our wetter-than-usual summer.

Now with winter coming many in the know are predicting a warmer, dry period. The weather patterns are not setting up favorably for much-needed moisture heading into spring 2016.

Good soil moisture is the key for plants surviving whatever winter conditions come our way. Luckily we are having a warm October which means it is not all that unpleasant to get out and provide supplemental water to help ensure our plants survive and flourish next year.

This same weather pattern set up a year ago. The summer of 2014 was wetter than normal. But then a dry fall, winter and early spring arrived followed by one of the best summers on record. Then when the rain faucet shut off in August many of our evergreens started to die.

After the first hot, dry spell of the summer our phones began to ring off the hook with reports of dead evergreens, mainly spruce. The issue was a combination of stresses that dated back a year ago to the dry fall and winter of 2014.

Don’t let this happen to you as we head into the 2016 growing season. Now is an excellent time to start your winter watering practices. Most in need of a thorough drink are all evergreens, especially ones that are less than five to ten years in age. This would include trees and shrubs. The entire root system must be soaked deeply to provide the needed moisture during the winter months. Yes, plants still use and need good moisture while they are dormant in winter.

The best way to soak a tree is to turn the water hose on a slow trickle and let it run in three to four locations out and around the tree for 15 to 20 minutes in each location. For each year in the ground the younger trees will need 10 to 15 gallons of water slowly soaked into the soil. Sprinkler systems that run for a few minutes to irrigate the lawn are not effective in deeply soaking the soil for a young tree. A slow hose trickle or bubbling type sprinkler should be left for an extend period of time. Remember, for establishing trees the water is not applied at the base of the trunk but all throughout the canopy and beyond the dripline.

Once the evergreens are soaked then our attention should turn to younger deciduous trees and shrubs. The same care as required for evergreens should be followed. The good news with all types of plants is that the soils do not dry out as rapidly in the cooler, cloudier parts of winter. The need for additional winter watering depends on the conditions but if you thoroughly soak you should be good to go for about four to six weeks. If there is no supplemental moisture and the conditions are drying, that is warmer than normal; you may want to hit the younger trees and shrubs again.

The problem with winter drought is that it falls into the “out of sight, out of mind” category. We don’t think about how our plants are holding on — until later. Then come spring or summer, when for no-easy-to-explain answer, our beloved evergreen ups and dies. That, unfortunately, is what we had to explain to so many customers this fall.

Don’t be one of those people that are left to wondering why their spruce died. Now is the time to take action and water young, establishing plants in the landscape. Keep in mind this deep watering does not require you to stand there and hold a hose. Instead let it trickle, go back inside, set a timer and go on about your life. When 20 minutes is up, move the hose to a new location under the tree. Now, that is a pretty simple way to protect your investment.