Gazing outdoors at wonderful, white, wet snow, the avid gardener's thoughts drift to the start of the gardening year. Although February can be the coldest month in the Rim country, it can also be one of the most productive and rewarding.
The nurseries are beginning to receive regular shipments of bare-root trees and shrubs, and there is a good selection available. Planting bare-root stock is an economical and efficient way to add high quality plants to the garden, as there is a large variety of trees, shrubs, berries and vines that may not be available in other forms later on. Before purchase, try and do a little research as to which varieties are best suited to our erratic climate conditions.
There are many advantages to bare-root planting. First, roots do not go dormant, as do stems and buds. Throughout the winter, when temperatures are above freezing and there is enough available moisture, roots grow and store energy, so when the growing season begins, the plant has enough energy to send out buds, leaves, and set fruit.
Next, because the roots are exposed, the health and condition of the roots and crown of the plant can be inspected. Choose plants with roots that are supple, branched, alive and free of insects and disease. Avoid plants with one-sided, girdling or tightly encircling roots, which indicates the plant has been pot bound. Other conditions to watch for are dehydrated or frozen roots, which are brittle, or mushy roots that are rotten and give off an unpleasant odor.
Plants with mold on the roots, the crown or the graft site should also be rejected.
Proper care for the bare-root plant between bringing it home and planting is extremely important. The roots should be kept moist but not soggy, cool but not allowed to freeze. Store plants in a cool shed or garage or under the eaves on the north side of the building.
Some plants, such as roses or berries may be packaged in plastic with moist mulch around the roots. Leave plants in packaging, but store in a cold location without sun shining on the packaging. Sun can cause condensation inside the package and promote mold growth.
Soak the roots in a large bucket in cold water for a few hours, but not longer than overnight, before planting. Prepare the planting hole based on the type and size of the plant going into it. Wait until the ground is not soggy to dig planting holes, as the soil should be crumbly. Otherwise, the sides of the hole can become burnished by the blade of the shovel, may harden, and not allow the roots to spread as they grow.
Dig or till an area a foot or so deep around the spot where the hole will be dug, and work in several inches of composted organic material. As the planting hole is dug, some of this organic material will blend into the soil, and make a healthy transitional area for the roots to spread into. Just filling the planting hole with organic material is counterproductive because once the roots hit the wall of the hole and have to make the transition into native soil, they may stop growing and the plant may become stunted or die.
Be sure to choose a planting area that drains well. Drainage is a prime factor in growing a healthy plant, except for bog and water plants.
Specimens without a taproot should go into a hole that is just deep enough to accommodate the root system, with a firmly tamped cone of soil to set the plant on, and drape the roots over. Plants with a taproot need a hole deep enough to accommodate the tap. Both types should be planted just deeply enough to hold the roots firmly in the ground.
Look for the soil mark left on the plant from when it was dug by the grower. When planting, backfill the soil over the roots, tamp it firmly, but do not compress, and water it well. Inspect the plant and make sure the crown is still above grade, or water will accumulate around it and can cause rotting. Spread a thick layer of mulch over the entire planting site but not touching the trunk or stems of the plant.
Monitor the weather and precipitation amounts, and every two weeks or so, test the soil for moisture. A large screwdriver inserted into the soil should easily penetrate 10 to 12 inches. If it does not, give the bare-root transplant a long, slow watering during the day.
In-between cold spells, garden maintenance chores this month include pruning of all dormant fruit and ornamentals. Use "Hi-Yield" dormant oil spray on deciduous fruits and ornamentals to kill over-wintering insect eggs and disease spores. Pull large weeds as the ground is soft, and the root system should be easily removed. Remove heavy snow with a rake or broom to prevent branches from breaking.
Supply water for birds. Suet, fruit and seed will also be gobbled hungrily. Attracting birds to home gardens helps keep insect populations in check, and the ecosystem in balance.
Barb Bourscheidt is a longtime resident of Payson, a member of the Rim Area Gardeners and a participant in the Gila County Master Gardener program. She serves on the board of directors of the High Country Xeriscape Council of Arizona, and she researches and writes articles on the subject of water conservation through creative landscaping and climate-appropriate gardening techniques.