When rain turned to snow on the night of January 9, you could hear the cheers of children, skiers, and gardeners throughout Flagstaff. Even the forest seemed to sigh in relief, as the water seeped down to the roots.
The snow saved me from the chore of winter watering for another few weeks; fortuitous since the hose is now lost under snow, along with all the weeds and probably a garden tool or two. It’s easy to forget to water in the winter. In spring and summer we gardeners are reminded when the plants droop and leaves wither. In winter, we can’t see the plant roots suffering, but the roots are cracking and chafing in the dry cold just as quickly as my lips and cuticles.
Woody plants with shallow root systems are particularly susceptible, including birches, many of the maples, mountain ash, spruce, and fir. Shrubs such as non-native junipers, Oregon grape-holly, and euonymus are also vulnerable, especially those growing close to a building or in warm or windy locations.
These shrubs and trees need water at least once a month through the winter, and if the water doesn’t fall from the sky then it’s up to the gardener. Water midday when the temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the ground isn’t frozen. A good method for watering trees and shrubs in winter is to hook a soaker hose up to your hose. Loop the soaker hose under the dripline of the tree leaving a foot or two between each coil. Leave the hose running until the soil is wet to about 18 inches deep, which you can check by pushing a piece of rebar or long screwdriver into the ground.
Being essentially a lazy gardener, I saw in this week’s snowfall a way to put off watering a little longer. Though my husband suggested we let the sun take care of the 6 inches of snow on the driveway, I suited up and grabbed the shovel.
The conical trees on either side of the front door bowed low to me, so I shook each branch in turn, until the trees stood straight again. I noticed that the snow the branches shed spread in a wide circle under and around the tree, along the drip line. This is where I should have watered these trees, if I’d gotten around to it. A few months ago, before I took the Master Gardener Course through the Arizona Cooperative Extension Service, I might have made the mistake of watering just at the trunk or stem of a plant. Now I know that the water is needed at the roots, and just beyond, so the roots will have reason to spread out and create a strong network to sustain the tree.
I filled in the tree’s dripline with mounds of snow shoveled from the pathway. I buried bushes inside igloos and built berms over the flowerbeds. Even as I shoveled, the snow melted into puddles, but this only fueled my fervor. The goal was not to clear the pathway, but to move this valuable store of wetness to where it would slowly water my plants.
The snow also acts as mulch, an insulating covering that will keep the plants safe, warm and wet through the winter. Even after the snow on the field melts away completely, the piles I’ve built around my plants will remain. On sunny days the snow piles will release life-giving liquid into the soil slowly, a natural drip irrigation. The snow walls will deflect winter winds, protecting my plants and bushes. And when the fickle weather tries to trick buds to emerge with spring-like days, followed by a hard freeze, the bulbs hidden under piles of snow will never know.
This is a dry year, though, with La Niña diverting storms north. When my snow piles melt and the garden hose reappears, I will still need to water. Which is why this lazy gardener is hoping for more snow.