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By Judy Koehly
Plants don’t need as much care in winter as they do in summer, but it is important not to neglect watering your plants during the winter.
Some ice or wind damage is unavoidable, but a lot of cold weather damage to plants’ cells is caused by dehydration. In our region, normal winter precipitation is enough for plants because their cold-weather watering needs are considerably less. However, making sure your plants have adequate hydration is the best way to protect them in harsh weather.
When there is a lack of rainfall, it is necessary to water your garden thoroughly in the fall, and deeply water newly planted saplings and shrubs. Plan to give the garden a deep watering every two to three weeks until the first frost.
Mulch your garden with chopped up leaves and compost in the fall after pulling spent annuals and cutting back perennials. Mulch protects your topsoil and helps it retain water. It also nourishes roots and keeps them warm. Spread at least an inch of mulch over the ground. Pile up some extra mulch around any new saplings or plants that have been planted within the last year, being careful not to pile the mulch up around the trunk of trees.
Prepare for sudden fall frosts by checking your local weather report. Watering your plants before a frost will protect them from damage caused by freezing. The roots need a chance to absorb the water before it freezes, so try to soak them at least 24 hours before the frost.
It is best to water early in the day as soon as the temperature is above freezing, allowing time for the water to soak in down to the roots before the soil freezes again at night.
Avoid getting water on the plants’ stems and leaves when you water in the winter. Ice sitting on foliage can kill it or cause it to break off. Water woody plants like shrubs and saplings away from the trunk, because ice can damage the bark. Water the soil around the trunk out to the drip line of the plant so all of the roots can get moisture.
Water plants during the winter only after long dry spells of two weeks or more. Plants are inactive during the winter so they don’t need much water, but if the soil completely dries out, they risk damage from wind and dehydration. The exception is newly transplanted trees or shrubs, which need water on a regular basis to develop their roots as they settle into their new home.
Newly planted trees are most susceptible to winter-drought injury. Woody trees generally take one year to establish for each inch of trunk diameter. For example, a two-inch diameter (caliper) tree takes a minimum of two years to establish under normal conditions. Protect your outdoor plants now for a more beautiful spring.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.