Good Weather Can Be Bad

This should be the rainy season.

As if the lack of rain is not serious enough, the lack of cool winter weather will also cause problems for gardening. Warmth is certainly not as bad as drought, and makes gardening and other outdoor activities more pleasurable, but it interferes with the schedules and cycles that we and the flora in our gardens rely on. Something as natural as the weather should not be so unnatural.

The earlier unseasonably cold weather convinced plants that it really was winter. The problem is that the weather then turned unseasonably warm, and has stayed this warm long enough for plants to believe that it is spring! Some established (not freshly planted) narcissus and daffodils that should bloom as winter ends are already blooming, and some that are naturalized where they get no supplemental watering are already fading from the lack of moisture.

Buds of dormant roses are not staying so dormant, and may soon pop and start to grow. Buds of dormant fruit trees could do the same. When the rain finally starts, it will likely damage and spread disease among freshly exposed rose foliage and newly developing buds. Fungal and bacterial diseases that get an early start will likely proliferate more than they normally do through the following spring. Rain can likewise damage and dislodge fruit blossoms.

The many plants in the garden fortunately have a remarkable capacity for adaptation to weird weather. Bulbs, roses, fruit trees and other plants should eventually recover and get on with life as if nothing happened. The weather is actually more of a problem to those of us who want an early and healthy abundance of roses and an abundance of fruit in summer.

It is still a bit too early to know how the weather will affect what happens in the garden this spring, but fruit production of many types of fruit, as well as bloom of some types of flowers is expected to be inhibited.

Winter Is Time For Pruning

Pomegranate trees appreciate major specialized pruning.

Plants are unable to migrate to warmer climates for winter like so many migratory birds do. They are immobile for their entire lives. Only potted plants can move to more sheltered situations when the weather gets too cool for them. Some get to live inside as houseplants. Otherwise, they all must contend with seasonally changing weather. Most are impressively efficient with how they do so.

Most that do not adapt efficiently to cool winter weather are tropical species. Tropicals that are native to high elevations can tolerate cold weather. However, many of the familiar tropical species are from low elevations where they never experience cold weather. Frost damages or kills them. Warm season annuals do not tolerate cool weather either. They just die at the end of their season.

Otherwise, almost all other plants go dormant through winter, at least to some degree. Even evergreen plants, which may not seem to go dormant, grow much slower during winter, or do not grow at all. Deciduous plants are much more obvious about their dormancy, because they defoliate. While bare, they are less susceptible to damage from wintry weather. Dormancy is like hibernation.

This is why winter is the best time for pruning most plants. While dormant, they are less susceptible to distress associated with pruning. Some plants expect some degree of damage from wintery weather during their dormancy anyway. They wake in spring, with no idea of what happened while they slept, and resume normal growth. Winter pruning conforms quite naturally to their life cycles.

There are, of course, a few exceptions. Citrus and avocado should not be pruned during winter. Such pruning stimulates new growth, which is sensitive to frost. Maple and birch should have been pruned earlier. They bleed annoyingly if pruned late into winter. Flowering trees that produce no fruit, such as flowering dogwood and flowering cherry, should be pruned after bloom, late in spring.

Deciduous fruiting trees, such as apricot, cherry, plum, peach, apple and pear, require specialized pruning during winter.

Winter Is For Getting Bare

Bare root plants do not look like much . . . yet.

Even before the last of the Christmas trees vacate nurseries, bare root nursery stock begins to move in, and will be available through winter. As the name implies, ‘bare root’ stock has bare roots, without media (‘potting soil’) or cans (pots) to contain the roots. Many are temporarily heeled into damp sand from which they get dug and wrapped in newspaper when purchased. Others are packaged in damp wood shavings or coarse sawdust contained in narrow plastic bags.

Bare root plants do not mind the lack of media because they get dug, shipped, sold and finally planted into their permanent locations all while naturally dormant through winter. They were in the ground when they went dormant, and will be back in the ground in their new homes by the time they wake up in spring. Because they have not already developed a densely meshed root system within a limited volume of media, they happily disperse new roots directly into the soil where they get planted.

Because they lack relatively bulky cans, bare root plants need less space in nurseries. Many more varieties of deciduous fruit trees, grapevines, roses and berries can therefore be made available. They also cost about half as much as common canned nursery stock.

If bare root plants will not be planted immediately, their roots should be heeled into damp dense mulch (not coarse chips) or soil, and watered. They can be soaked in buckets of water if planting will be delayed only for a day or two. Packaged plants need not be heeled in, and can wait in the shade for more than a week.

Planting holes do not need to be any wider or deeper than the roots. If the soil is loosened too deeply, in will likely settle and cause the new plants to sink. Graft unions must stay above the surface of the soil. (Graft unions are evident where rose plants branch, or as kinks low on tree trunks.) If backfill soil is amended at all, it should be amended only minimally. Otherwise, roots may not want to disperse very far. New plants should be soaked twice in order to settle soil around the roots, but if it rains soon enough, they may not need to be watered again until they start to grow in spring.

Once planted, most bare root plants need some sort of pruning. Fruit trees typically have more stems than they need to maximize the options for their first structure pruning.

Dormancy And Defoliation Are Advantageous

Kahili ginger is finished blooming, and should get cut back once the foliage succumbs to frost.

Many plants are deciduous in autumn and winter, which means that they defoliate or die back, and then refoliate or regenerate in spring. Many others are evergreen, which simply means that they are always foliated through all seasons. What many people do not realize is that evergreen plants replace their foliage just like deciduous plants do. They just do not do it in such distinct phases of defoliation, dormancy and refoliation.

Tropical plants like cannas and some of the various begonias really have no need for formal defoliation, since they are from climates that lack winter. In the wild, they continually and systematically shed old stems as they produce new stems. Locally, they tend to shed more than they grow during late autumn and winter. The large types of begonias tend to keep their canes for so many years that it is not so obvious. Where winters are colder, cannas freeze to the ground, only to regenerate from their thick rhizomes as winter ends.

Zonal geraniums may seem rather tired this time of year for the opposite reason. They expect late autumn weather to include frost that would kill them back to the ground where they would stay relatively dormant until warmer weather after winter. Just because their foliage is instead evergreen through winter does not mean that it should be. It lingers and often becomes infested with mildew and rust (fungal diseases) that proliferate in humid autumn weather.

However, zonal geraniums need not be pruned back just yet. Even if they eventually get damaged by frost, pruning should be delayed so that the already damaged older foliage and stems can shelter the even more sensitive new growth as it emerges below. They can get cut back after frost would be likely.

Evergreen pear can get very spotty once the warm weather runs out because the same damp and cool weather that inhibits its growth also promotes proliferation of the blight that damages and discolors the foliage. The damaged foliage eventually gets replaced as new foliage emerges in spring, but will remain spotty and discolored until then. Photinia does not get as spotty, but holds blighted foliage longer into the following summer. Ivy can be temporarily damaged by a visually similar blight.

Spring Bulbs Begin In Autumn

Spring bulbs bloom months from now.

Spring bulbs lack immediate gratification. They will, of course, justify their habitation of the garden as they bloom next spring. For now, they are not much to look at, and do not stay visible for long. While dormant, they poses neither foliage nor significant roots. Most look something like small and disfigured onions. Burial in shallow graves conceals their uninteresting exteriors through winter.

Cool season bedding plants can effectively obscure the otherwise bare soil over the grave sites of some types of bulbs. Mulch might be best for those that should start to grow immediately or that will develop an abundance of foliage. While plants above them may need watering until the rainy season begins, dormant spring bulbs need no more attention. They disperse roots through winter.

Spring bulbs, including corms, rhizomes, tubers and tuberous roots, are oblivious to the discomforts of transplant while dormant. However, they want to wake from their dormancy in situations that are conducive to normal development and bloom. Some prefer shallow planting. Others require significant depth for stability. Most but not all spring bulbs perform best in small groups or colonies.

Narcissus, daffodil and crocus are the first spring bulbs to bloom as winter ends, or even earlier. Tulip, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, freesia, anemone, ranunculus and some types of iris bloom shortly afterward. Late iris, lily and montbretia bloom later, and some types are considered to be summer bulbs. Spring bulbs become available in nurseries while seasonable. Summer bulbs arrive later.

Most spring bulbs bloom only once. Plaiting them in phases a few weeks apart within their respective seasons can prolong bloom. Each subsequent phase begins bloom as the preceding phase finishes. However, narcissus, daffodil, grape hyacinth and others that can naturalize will bloom simultaneously after their first season. Most spring bulbs unfortunately do not naturalize reliably here.

Gladiolus and allium are summer bulbs that bloom once. Calla, canna and dahlia bloom through summer.

Fertilizer Is A Seasonal Commodity

Fertilizer is about to be passe.

Fertilizer, in simple terms, helps plants grow. It provides a bit more of what growing plants crave. In some situations, it compensates for nutrient deficiencies. Fertilizer can be organic or synthetic. Various formulations serve a variety of purposes. Custom formulations appeal to plants with discriminating taste, such as citrus, orchids and roses. Slow release fertilizer lasts for a month or two.

Of course, proper scheduling of the application of fertilizer is very important. Fertilizer can actually become toxic with excessively frequent application. Fertilizer that provides significant nitrogen to promote vegetative growth after bloom can inhibit floral growth prior to bloom. Fertilizer that promotes root growth for new plants is unnecessary for mature plants. The diets of plants are variable.

Summer lingers later here. Regardless of the weather, it is now autumn. This is when deciduous plants start the process of defoliation for their winter dormancy. Evergreen plants are less obvious about their winter dormancy. Some remain active and even bloom through autumn and winter locally. Nonetheless, cooling weather and shortening days inhibit vascular activity of almost all plants.

Except for cool season vegetables and bedding plants, not many plants benefit from fertilizer applied this late. New plants might appreciate a bit just to help them adjust to their new environment. Some deciduous plants, particularly roses, like a last late application of fertilizer as they get ready for their long winter dormancy. Lawns might want fertilizer this late or perhaps later to stay green.

Otherwise, it is getting late to utilize fertilizer.

Late application of fertilizer can be very detrimental to plants that are sensitive to cool weather. Such plants typically finish growing through summer. By autumn, their mature foliage and stems are either resilient to minor frost, or are dieing back (defoliating) for winter dormancy. Fertilizer can stimulate premature development of new growth that will be much more sensitive to even mild frost.

Bare Plants With Bare Roots

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Dormant plants do not miss soil.

Knowing how colorfully bulbs will eventually bloom can initially make planting them disappointing, since there is nothing to see for all the effort. Planting bare root plants is not much more rewarding. The bare stems are a bit more proof of the effort, but will do nothing until they break dormancy in spring. Now that Christmas trees have vacated nurseries, bare root plants will be arriving, and will need to be planted before winter ends.

As the name implies, bare root plants have bare roots, without the soil they were grown in. Better equipped nurseries ‘heel in’ bare root plants in moist sand, which simply means that the roots get buried temporarily. When purchased, the plants get pulled from the sand and wrapped for the trip to their new home garden, where they get planted permanently into real soil.

Alternatively, bare root plants can be prepackaged in bags of moist sawdust. They only need to be removed from their packaging and sawdust before getting planted into the garden. Mail order plants, including plants purchased online, often get packaged even more simply, with a damp bag around the roots, maybe with a bit of gel or damp paper. The plants are safely dormant, so are not even aware of what is going on.

The main advantage of bare root plants is that they cost about a third of what typical nursery stock in heavier cans of media (soil) cost. Because they are so much less cumbersome, several bare root plants can be purchased at a time, and brought home in a small car without much effort. Since they lack the luxury of the soil they were grown in, they immediately disperse their roots directly into the surrounding soil.

Roots of bare root plants should be spread away from each other at planting. Soil amendment is nice, but should not be so copious that roots will not want to disperse outside of the amended soil. Even if rain is expected, newly planted bare root plants should initially get soaked so that soil settles around the roots. Grafted plants should be planted with the graft union above grade.

Fruit trees such as apricot, cherry, plum, prune, peach, nectarine, almond, apple and pear, as well as roses, are the most popular of bare root plants. Flowering crabapple, flowering cherry, poplar, willow, lilac, forsythia, wisteria and grape are also available.

Winter Is For Dormant Pruning

P90316++++The internet makes it possible to communicate with people who enjoy gardening all over the World. It can be amusing to hear what garden enthusiasts in Australia are doing now in early summer. Is it always summer in Ecuador? A common theme in much of America is that there is not much gardening to do right now. It might be more accurate to say that no one wants to go out in the cold.

Where winter weather is too unpleasantly cold to work in the garden, many winter chores can either be done earlier in late autumn, or delayed until early spring. Such scheduling is not a problem, since the plants involved are so deeply dormant through such cold weather anyway. Until the weather warms a bit, they do not want to work in their gardens either. Scheduling is very different here.

Not only does mild weather facilitate gardening chores, but it necessitates the completion of certain chores before the end of winter. Many plants that are mostly dormant while the weather is cool are actually dispersing their roots now that the soil is moistened by winter rain. They will be ready to break dormancy weeks before they would where winters are colder. There is no time for delay.

With a few exceptions, winter is the season for pruning here. Maples and birches should have been pruned earlier, or should be pruned later, so that they do not bleed sap. Citrus get pruned and groomed after the last frost because pruning stimulates new growth that is sensitive to frost. Early blooming flowering crabapples, flowering cherries and forsythias should get pruned after bloom.

Otherwise, most deciduous plants and many evergreen plants should be pruned in winter, while they are as dormant as they get. Pruning now will be less disruptive than it would be while they are more active. They wake up in spring and resume growth as if nothing happened, but relieved of the superfluous growth that was pruned away. Winter pruning is what fits best into their schedules.

Of all plants in the garden, deciduous fruit trees and roses rely on specialized pruning more than most others.

Spring Bulbs Get Planted Now

91023thumbTo those who do not enjoy gardening, the process of planting dormant bulbs must seem to be blatantly unproductive. Those of us who know what we are doing are so dutiful to select the bulbs we want, only to bury them in shallow graves in the garden, with nothing to show for all the effort. Knowing that the bulbs are buried at specific depths and orientations makes them no more exciting.

Only cool season annuals that might get overplanted after the bulbs get tucked in will provide any degree of color between now and when the freshly planted bulbs bloom early next spring. Light mulch might be added in conjunction with the overplanted annuals. Thicker mulch can be added without overplanted annuals. Otherwise, there is no immediate gratification with bulbs planted now.

We plant them because we know what they will do next spring. After their boring dormancy, spring bulbs will provide the most spectacular blooms in the garden as winter becomes spring. As they finish, summer bulbs that we might plant a bit later will continue through summer, with the latest continuing into about this time next year. There are no annual bedding plants that do what bulbs do.

Dormant bulbs become available in nurseries when it is time to plant them. Right now, it is time for the early spring bulbs like daffodil, narcissus, tulip, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, freesia, anemone, ranunculus, montbretia, crocosmia, crocus, most lily and some types of iris. We should get them into the garden soon so that they can slowly disperse their roots through the cool and rainy winter.

Summer bulbs such as gladiola, dahlia, allium, calla and canna, will become available later because they should probably be planted later. Although some might not mind getting planted early, a few, such as dahlia and canna, would likely be damaged by frost if they started to grow too early. Many of the summer bulbs bloom through a long season, rather than just once for a brief season.

Bulbs and bulb-like plants that bloom only once can be planted in phases every week or two through their season in order to prolong bloom.

Fertilize For The Last Time

91009thumbFor many of us, this might seem to be irrelevant. We do not apply fertilizer to our landscapes and gardens. Some of us who use fertilizer do so mostly for seasonal vegetable plants and flowering annuals. Such plants will either not be around long enough to get fertilized again this year, or are cool season plants that are on a completely different fertilizer schedule through autumn and winter.

Two other main exceptions that that might continue to get fertilizer after summer are lawns and houseplants. Some types of turf grasses, particularly those in older lawns, can get a bit pale through the the cooler parts of winter, so appreciate a boost. Houseplants are mostly immune to the cold weather outside, so continue to to crave nutrients, even if slowed somewhat by shorter day length.

So, except for lawns, houseplants, and incoming and outgoing annuals and vegetables, most other plants in the garden do not need to be fertilized again until weather begins to warm next spring. Not only do they not need fertilizer, but some could be inconvenienced by it. They know what time it is, and that they should now be slowing down for winter. Fertilizer can interfere with the process.

There are a few reasons why plants slow down or go dormant through winter. Some of the nutrients that they need to maintain active growth are less soluble or otherwise less available to them at cooler temperatures. There is less sunlight too. Plants from climates with cooler winters tend to be more proficient with winter dormancy. Many are deciduous to limit damage from wintry weather.

Some plants might use a late application of fertilizer to get ready for winter dormancy. Others might just ignore it as it leaches through the soil. Those that are from milder climates might try to use it to continue growing later than they should. For plants that are potentially sensitive to frost, growth that develops too late will not likely mature soon enough to be resilient to even mild winter frost.

This is why fertilizer can be applied to many plants one last time about now, but no later.