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If winter is dry, watering your plants is wise

Here we go again.

Over the years, I have written well over a dozen articles about our climate: too much snow in the winter and how it damages trees; not enough water in the winter and what that means for farmers and ranchers the next growing season; or how the June dry heat can stress plants.

Heck, back in summer 2012, I wrote about watering during drought and guess what happened? It rained 1.5 inches over the next four days.

I am willing to do it again: sacrifice column space and word count in the name of all things moisture. Since Oct.14, the area has received about 0.4 inches of rain and no measureable snow. The average high has been close to 60 degrees over that time, and the coldest it reached was 15 degrees. That is a pretty balmy, and dry, start to winter. I actually wore shorts way more often than I made fires over that period.

So here is your advice on winter watering in hopes that you don’t have to. That this article will give Mother Nature the impetus to start snowing and make my words moot.

Many of our landscape (and native) plants have had to endure years of drought, higher than normal temperatures and long periods of a combination of both. Over time, that stresses out plants, making them more susceptible to disease, insects or other environmental conditions.

A potential result of this drawn-out weather pattern could be death to the parts of the plant’s root system, especially with newly planted or stressed plants. Woody plants typically have shallow root systems and require supplemental watering. Herbaceous perennials and groundcovers, especially those in exposed sites, can be subjected to cracking in soil that exposes roots to cold and drying. Even recently established lawns have a shallow root system and can quickly dry out.

One of the ways to moderate this stress is to water during the winter months, as long as these guidelines are followed:

  • Water only when the air temperature is above 40 degrees with no snow cover.
  • If the ground is frozen, don’t water.
  • Apply during the heat of the day, typically between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. You want the water to soak in before possible freezing at night.\
  • Focus on the newly planted material (less than two to three years in the ground), and water once per month if the proper conditions exist.
  • Water to a depth of 12 inches, if possible. This may mean that you need to apply the water slowly, either using a soaker hose, sprinkler or spray wand.
  • Direct the water underneath the ends of the branches (drip line).
  • If possible, apply 10 gallons of water for every inch of the tree’s trunk diameter (measure this at 6 inches above the ground level).
Watering in the winter can be complicated by a dog that is obsessed with the hose. (Courtesy of Darrin Parmenter)

I fully realize that watering in the winter is a pain in the you know what, especially if you have a dog that is obsessed with the hose. Many of you have already put away the hoses, winterized the sprinkler system and hose bibs, and put summer chores behind you.

But a well-established and healthy root system is the base of the plant’s success, and knowing how much time, energy and money we put into these plants it would be a shame to see them perish before the next growing season even starts.

Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at darrin.parmenter@co.laplata.co.us or 382-6464.