Answers to your gardening questions
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Bare-root Trees & Shrubs
Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! In no time at all, bare-rooted trees and shrubs ordered from the Soil Conservation Service will be ready for pick-up and planting. While landscaping plants which are purchased in containers, or which are "balled and burlaped", present few problems and may be planted almost any time the ground isn't frozen (assuming it receives ample water at time of planting), bare-rooted specimens must be planted only when actually dormant and while observing some rather important rules.
Bare-rooted plant material, like the deciduous fruit and ornamental trees, conservation plants and shrubs such as those purchased through Soil Conservation Service, arrive in a dormant (resting) condition and should have no leaves. Some may show swollen buds indicating the plant is in the process of waking up.
Because their roots have likely been quite severely cut back or damaged in the process of digging, tops need to be pruned back somewhat in order to achieve a "balance" between the tops and the roots. Often, pruning and shaping will have already been done but, when necessary after purchase, always use a clean, sharp tool and shape tops according to directions in horticultural literature.
Unhappily for the plants, most gardeners make the mistake of digging only the barest minimum-size hole to poke the young tree into, kick in a few clods of soil and splash on a little water.
In my opinion, soil preparation is the single most critical "key" to successful gardening. If you're going to "cheat" somewhere, don't cheat on getting your tree or shrub's permanent home in the best possible condition. Dig a larger than needed hole with straight up and down sides...at least six inches wider all the way around than the root spread. If you run into hardpan, break through; if you find stones or roots, remove them. Protect the good soil but discard the "junk."
Loosen the soil in the bottom of the hole and incorporate some of that rich, dark compost that every serious gardener should have at least some of. Don't use fresh manure. Mix it all together. Spread the tree or shrub roots out and set the new plant at about the same depth as it was growing in the nursery. Tree grafts should be about two inches above finished grade. Carefully work the soil around the roots being certain to eliminate any air pockets which might cause roots to dry out. Use plenty of compost and the best looking soil you have, until the hole is nearly full. Tamp it firmly with your foot and fill the depression with water. Fill it again...and again.
You'll want to water your new tree or shrub at least once a week (unless it rains over an inch) for the next four to six months. I know...it sounds like a lot of water, but you want your tree to live, don't you? Don't fertilize bare-rooted stock the first year; wait until the following spring.
I like to lay on a generous layer of some type of mulch around the base of the tree to conserve moisture, prevent weeds and protect the ground from too much summer heat.
Balled and burlaped trees and shrubs purchased in local nurseries or garden centers can be handled a little differently. Check the ball. If it feels solid and doesn't "squish" or sag like a sack of wet sand, it was almost surely dug from a field and balled in its own soil. A soft and flexible ball tells you that it was probably bare-rooted and packed in some filler material like bark or peat. If you have an option, opt for a firm ball.
A second consideration which is critically important is where the prospective purchase was grown. You probably already know that, for the most part, our little divot of Maine lies in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 and 5, where we can expect severest winter temperatures to fall near minus15 degrees (F) or lower. Trees, shrubs and, for that matter any plant you purchase, should ideally have been grown in the zone it's to be planted in, to assure winter survivability without some heroic protection efforts. If a plant—bareroot or otherwise—was grown in some distant nursery field hundreds (if not thousands) of miles south of here, jerked out of the ground by some ruthless machine and jammed into an 18-wheeler for a long trip to Maine, then plopped onto a concrete or asphalt parking lot until it's sold, it stands about as much chance of winter survival as the proverbial snowball in you-know-where! Remember: you are the purchaser...it's your money that plant salesman wants...but it's your right to spend that money on plant material which he or she can guarantee hardy in our area. So, for starts, look for the "Maine Grown" label; if you don't see one, search out the store or nursery manager and ask him where those plants came from. Sometimes color plant labels have the name of the nursery where they were grown. At any rate, always check or ask—you want to get your money's worth, don't you?
After performing the same soil preparation outlined for bare-root stock, always remove as much of the burlap—natural or plastic—as you possibly can. The easiest and safest removal method is to set the root ball into the hole and gently rock it back and forth to slide the burlap from underneath. If, after the burlap is removed you see some large roots circling the ball, gently loosen and spread them out. Also check carefully for roots of invasive field grasses or other ambitious weeds. Backfill and water just like you would bare-rooted plants.
Feed containerized or balled trees and shrubs with a suitable fertilizer the first year and be careful not to let them dry out. I sometimes use fertilizer spikes (the generic type—they're less expensive than big-brands), unless it's a fruit tree, then — more often than not — I go with natural fertilizers like a bloodmeal-bonemeal-greensand- and-rockdust blend to avoid chemical contamination).
That's about all there is to it. Before winter sets in, it'd be wise to backfill the basin you left for watering so a puddle of winter rain doesn't become a block of ice that might damage tender young roots and lower bark.
Waking up overdue dormant trees: (A question sent in by a gardener in Texas; she didn't specify where the plants were originally grown or what kind of "nuts" they were.)
Dormant stock is "dormant" because it's in a resting mode that normally helps it get through nearly intolerably cold winters. Yours may be confused...and therefore don't know it's time to begin seasonal growth...especially true if they were grown in northern—and therefore colder—climates. Those require a period of chilling to "trick" them into thinking they've gone through winter, following a prior season of growth. (I'm guessing they were originally grown in a much colder zone, and were dug and shipped immediately after dropping their leaves. They probably think it's still early Fall...and are physiologically confused...waiting for Spring to arrive.)
Eventually, as you have experienced, they just give up waiting for the anticipated winter....and make an attempt to fumble their way into new growth.
Next time either purchase locally...or check your northern source to make sure they've been "vernalized" (given the required period of chilling) before they are shipped. Most such northern bareroot stock will acclimate during their first full season in the ground.
The complete reverse of that is frequently seen in northern-tier (with brutally cold and solid-frozen winters), where solely-profit-motivated retailers bring in stock from growing areas much further south with much milder winters. Those—even if bought and planted early in the season—have a very difficult time making it through their first icy winter.
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