How to pay attention to your Colorado grasses and trees in the dry winter months

Dry January may be good for your health, but a dry January climate is not healthy for your landscape.

Your trees may need human intervention.

It may seem like an inch or two of snow here and there is adequate natural moisture for our landscape plants. We may conclude that it will snow more soon, so there is no need to be concerned about our plants. It’s winter, after all, and aren’t plants dormant and not actively growing, so they don’t need any help from us?

The short answer is that plants need our assistance in the winter just like they need watering in the heat of summer. Plants need water because they continue to use it during the winter, but in less amounts. If they are well hydrated, they not only survive tough, low water months, but also they head into spring and summer stronger and healthier.

The only way to know if your landscape soil is moist is to physically check the soil.

Find your longest screwdriver and poke it down into the ground through the mulch, the grass and especially on sunny south-, west- or southwest-facing areas. If the screwdriver doesn’t go down easily, then the ground, the soil, is dry. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Find your longest screwdriver and poke it down into the ground through the mulch, the grass and especially on sunny south-, west- or southwest-facing areas. Check anywhere the soil isn’t frozen. If the screwdriver doesn’t go down easily, then the ground, the soil, is dry. If you need to use more effort to get it down, then the area is extremely parched. Your plants and plant roots need attention, very soon.

Ongoing and prolonged dry plant roots can lead to root damage, death or reduced plant vigor. Above-ground foliage damage may not show up right away, but down the road the stress from lack of water in the soil will be apparent.

This month, pull out those hoses, sprinkler heads, soaker hoses or a deep-root soil needle and get busy giving your landscape a big, long, deep drink.

Priority watering starts with the most expensive and not easily replaced plants in any landscape: trees (both deciduous and evergreen). Follow that by paying attention to shrubs, perennials and then grass turf. Plants and bulbs that were newly installed last spring, summer or fall are also important to water first.

Water when temperatures are above freezing during the middle part of the day so there is time for the moisture to soak in before sunset. Avoid windy days. Set up your hose and sprinkler to water all around the drip line (outer branch tips) of trees or close to the trunk if the tree is new or young.

Make it easier by setting a timer and moving the sprinkler every 15 or 20 minutes. Circle back and repeat the same procedure (soak and cycle) if the area is severely dry.

Soak and cycle helps the water soak downward, avoiding water waste and run-off.

When using a deep-root soil needle, plan on spending a good hour or more per large tree. Less time may be needed for smaller and newly planted trees and shrubs. Insert the soil needle down no more than 8 to 10 inches (that’s where most of the roots are located) and let it run for five or so minutes in each spot. You’ll know when the spot is saturated as the water will bubble up and not soak in well. Move it every 5 feet around the tree.

Set up your hose and sprinkler to water all around the drip line (outer branch tips) of trees or close to the trunk if the tree is new or young. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

A soaker hose works well, too. Extend it around the tree drip line (or closer for new trees). Make sure the water pressure is low so it soaks downward and not up and into the air. Leave it in place until your screwdriver goes down easily (check after each rotation.) Soaker hoses aren’t as easy to place around the tree when the hose is cold; you may need to use some landscape pins to keep it in place.

Tips

If it turns much colder after watering our landscapes, don’t worry: Frozen water in the soil will not harm plant roots.
Lawns can be affected by lack of winter moisture too, especially on south- and west-facing locations.
Disconnect all hoses after use, drain and keep them handy for the next time.
Check your landscape soil often for dryness, and aim for no relapses until your sprinkler system is turned on in the spring.

For more information, check out this article on fall and winter watering at colostate.edu.

Betty Cahill speaks and writes about gardening in the Rocky Mountain Region. Visit her site at http://gardenpunchlist.blogspot.com/ for even more gardening tips.

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