Water Your Shrubs Before Winter Sets In.

It will help them survive and be happy in spring.

Its very common to have people call me in the spring because their landscaping shrubs or trees are not doing well. As spring progresses the poor shrub looks sicker and more unhappy. The usual statement is ‘it was fine last year, now this spring its not’.

The most common reason for this problem is because the plant was not given adequate water before the winter set in. This is especially true for evergreen shrubs but can affect any shrub or small tree. It is vitally important for new trees and shrubs that have been planted this year or last year. Let’s look at the problem.

Plants are like people. I tell everyone this all the time. If you think of a plant like a person and treat them the same way then you have a much easier time with plant care. Even though plants are built to like sunlight and use it for food they are just as susceptible to the heat from the sun and the burning rays are we are. Plants however cant just pick up some sunscreen and slather it on like we can, and they most certainly cant get up and move to a better location.

What plants can do is sweat. Yes plants sweat just like we do. It’s the way they keep cool and keep the damaging rays from the sun at bay. To do this they have to have water. They keep some of this water in their roots, stems and leaves but the reserve supply is in the soil. IF the soil dries out the plant cant get enough water to sweat, so it wilts, at least in summer it wilts.

Holly bushes in winter
These Holly bushes are in full sun facing south. They will take a lot of sun during the winter months.

Winter is a bit different. While its cold in the winter for a lot of the United States its still sunny. This sunshine might not produce a lot of heat during the winter months but it still produces some and the damaging ultra violet rays are just as strong. If the temperatures are reasonable then the plant can still get water from the soil and most often its fine.

However if the temperatures are very low the ground freezes. There are many many days when we have snow on the ground but bright sunshine. We all know what that’s like, we need sunglasses to keep the glare down. It can even be quite warm during those sunny days but not enough to melt the snow and unfreeze the ground.
Now that poor plant is standing there in the bright sunshine with reflected glare coming off the snow covering and it does not have any sunglasses to put on. It tries to sweat, if it has managed to collect enough water in its ‘body’ (roots stems and leaves) it can do this. If it runs out it will try and suck it out of the ground, but when it sucks on that straw its blocked because the ground and the water in it is frozen so just like you sucking on a straw that blocked it cant get anything. So it suffers.

decidious shrubs in winter
Although these shrubs have lost their leaves the stems will still take a lot of sunshine during the winter months.

If this happens quite a few times during the winter months the plant gets very stressed. Imaging being out in the cold glaring sun getting hot and having nothing to drink, you would not like it much either.
For the most part the plant does not show these signs of stress until the spring comes. Then when new growth should be bursting out of those buds and perhaps flowers forming the poor plant is exhausted. It does not have the strength to make new growth or even recover from the stress it had over the winter. This is when you start to see the problems in the plant. However in many cases its now too late to help. The plant is just too exhausted to go on.

This scenario can be prevented by making sure all your plants get a good amount of water in the late fall and early winter months. Don’t just stop watering them because the weather gets cold. Even if the leaves are falling off the trees if its not raining much then water those shrubs. The need to have a good water reserve to get them through the very cold, frozen months and come through in spring as a happy healthy plant. What you do in the fall and early winter can make a massive difference to how healthy your plants are in the spring.
This is especially important to shrubs that are usually shaded by deciduous plants during the summer months. In the winter all these leaves are gone and the plant is subjected to the full force of the sunlight without any protection. Its going to get a much higher dose of light than it would during the summer. Even if the plant is now just stalks and twigs with no leaves its still has to endure the ravages of the winter sun. Giving it as much help as possible will ensure it’s a happy healthy plant next spring.

So don’t put the hose away if the temperature falls – although you might want to bring in the watering end overnight to stop it freezing. If you have many days of cool but not freezing weather with sunshine and no rain then make sure you water those shrubs and small trees. Large mature trees can usually take care of themselves. Water everything at least once a week and give it a good soak not just a few sprinkles, keep doing that every week until its just too cold or the ground freezes up. Your plants will love you for it.

Now you should be working on your lawn.

Fall is the best time to re-seed and fix lawn spots

Normally the ‘rule of thumb’ is to work on lawns around labor day here in the northeast but this year the weather has been hot and dry. Finally the temperatures are cooling down and we have had some rain moving in so at last the grass can wake up from its dormant slumber and start to grow again.

If you have any bare spots or need to do lawn renovation this is the time to do it. Putting down grass seed in the fall and early winter is the best time as grass germinates easily and at this time of the year has little competition with weed seeds. This means that it can get a good established hold before the spring when the weed seeds wake up again and try to overwhelm it. While you can seed in the spring the little grass seeds then have to compete with the weed seeds more and often chemicals need to be applied to keep them down while your grass grows. In fall there is no need for this step which keeps chemical use down. This is always a plus in my opinion.

Choose the right grass seed for the area you are working.
Not all grass is made alike make sure that you get the best variety or mix for the area that you wish to cover. See article on grass varieties. Your local garden center or big box store should have a variety of grass mixes to choose from. Big box stores however most likely don’t have knowledgeable staff that can help you choose your grass mix. A good garden center with knowledgeable staff is always a much better choice as they can give you advice on what the best grasses are to grow in your area. A lot of good garden centers are very choosy about their staff they will only hire people who are master gardeners or have other specialized qualifications.

If you want to do your own research then one of the best sites is lawngrasses.com. They have a series of questions that will help you determine what the best grass mix for your specific area is. Once you have that you can either buy it from them of note down their recommendations and look for a similar mix locally. This is a resource that I always recommend to people calling our master gardener hotline.

Prepare the ground.
If you have not done so then having a soil test done on your lawn is a good idea. If you have a large lawn front and back it’s a good idea to have separate ones done for the front and back of your property. Check with your local agricultural office or master gardener network to determine where your local soil test lab is located. Almost all land grant universities have a soil test laboratory. While you can go to a private laboratory to have your soil tested most of these do not make recommendations as to how you should amend your soil while land grant labs do. For most people this is the most important piece. Private soil labs can offer a much more detailed soil test but that is no use if you have not been trained to read it.
Once you have your soil test results you can amend your soil in the best way possible to help your grass.

If you don’t have time for a soil test now, then have one done in the spring. While most gardeners don’t really understand the use of a soil test it can make the difference between having plants and not having them. I will be doing an article later on soil tests.

Renovating your lawn is a whole different and more time consuming process and I will deal with that in a different article.

Filling bald spots.
Once you have your grass seed mix then its time to put the seed down. Pull out any really large or unpleasant spreading weeds from around the area that you are intending to reseed.

lawn patch, remove all unwanted material and weeds.
I started with the patch at the time of this article as my example. Then I raked up all the leaves and other unwanted material and removed a few weeds.
lawn fixing, rake soil
Then using a leaf rake scratch the surface of the soil to rough it up a little.
lawn fixing scatter seed
Once this is done scatter the seed over the area. Use a fairly dense scatter as grass plants tend to bush out quite slowly it you want a dense mat in spring you need a lot of plants. So enough seed that they are not quite touching but nearly.

Grass seed needs light to germinate but it also needs good soil contact to ensure it has enough water to swell and germinate.

Early care.
Keep the area moist. Grass needs water to germinate and grow. Often times there is sufficient rain in the fall to achieve this but if there is not go out with a watering can, for small spots or sprinkler for larger ones and water every day. Watering in the evening allows the moisture to stay around the plant for longer and not immediately burn off in the sunshine.
Keep off the area! Never step in the area where the grass seed is. Don’t step on it at all until the springtime. Grass will germinate quickly, it usually takes about a week then suddenly its all germinated and you have a new lawn. Keep it watered until the winter comes and the ground freezes. This early start will allow the grass to establish well and help beat out the weeds for next year.

Keep the chemicals in the bottles.
Try as much as possible NOT to put chemicals on your lawn. They are toxic, far more toxic that the ones the farmers use on their fields to prevent weeds. They can kill all the life in the soil, the kill butterflies and bees that are essential to our existence. They can poison you and your family, just because you can buy it easily in the store does not mean its not dangerous. While many people consider its important to have a very artificial monoculture of grass around their home its not the most healthy thing for your, your family or the environment. Its not really important if you have a few weeds in your lawn in fact its far more healthy! From a good ecological perspective the best lawn is one made up of a variety of perennial plants that create a short green blanket around your home. The objective of a good lawn it to prevent unpleasant annual weeds from taking over and having bald spots. Having clover and other plant in the lawn makes it healthy and much better for the environment. So go for a ecological lawn and not a artificial monoculture.

This is part of a series of articles on lawns, how to create and maintain healthy ecological ones.

Its fall time to fix your lawn!
Its fall time to fix your lawn!