The last planting; trees, shrubs and bulbs can still go in the ground
The sun has just peaked over the horizon on a chilly morning and starts to burn off a thick white layer of frost as Gary Ord from The Davey Tree Expert company uses a Kubota tractor to load a huge maple tree into a truck as Chuck Philistine guides him from inside the bed.
The cold weather has caused the fig tree in the back of the building, filled with small fruit, to drop its leaves. Biting in to a marginally ripe fig demonstrates just how cold it got the night before as it’s frozen, but still deliciously edible.
“You can plant until the ground freezes,” says Dick Till, assistant district manager for the company. “A lot of time it’s easier on the plants, too, while they are dormant.”
With the leaves gone, the trees aren’t transpiring water but will need water until the ground freezes. The crew also is planting some evergreen viburnum shrubs under hemlock trees on the same property.
There’s plenty that still can be planted, even though we might get our first snowfall this weekend.
Till says to look carefully at trees when choosing which to add to the landscape this time of year. He says to make sure they are nice and healthy and that the tree has a nice-sized root ball for the caliper of the trunk.
Dig the planting hole twice as wide as the root ball in a bowl shape, and “the top of the root ball should be at the existing grade or a little bit higher,” he says.
Tamp the soil down to remove air pockets and water right away to get the tree off to a good start.
“It’s good this time of the year to have 3 inches of mulch around the root zone,” he says. It should look like a doughnut, not a volcano and should never touch the tree itself.
He recommends native trees that can take our temperature extremes, amount of rain and are resistant to insects and diseases.
“Red maples are always a favorite for a fast-growing shade tree,” Till says. “ ‘Autumn Flame,’ ‘October Glory,’ ‘Red Sunset’ all have pretty fall foliage. It’s good to go with something that’s meant to grow here.”
Scott Kunst is founder and owner of Old House Gardens, a mail-order and Internet source for heirloom bulbs. Even though he’s done shipping for the season, he’s not done planting. Kunst is an inquisitive plant guy who carries the most interesting, rare and endangered varieties.
“I’m always looking for things that no one else is growing,” he says.
One of his passions is saving bulbs from extinction. He recommends planting bigger bulbs such as single tulips and large daffodils as the weather gets colder. He likes to have smaller bulbs, such as crocus, planted by October.
“The longer they can grow roots, the better they will be,” he says.
Kunst loves to experiment and recommends hitting the nurseries in search of bargain bulbs now, even if they are small. Lilies also are great for late planting, he says, although, “the first-year lily is not as glorious as the returning bulbs.”
“Try anything. It always amazes me after almost 60 years of gardening, plants put up with so much,” he says.
Kunst is taking bulbs left over in his warehouse and finding places for them in the garden. He’s potting tulips and sinking them in the vegetable garden and finding homes for more crocus.
“I’m going to give it a try,” he says. “I’m a daring gardener. … When you’re a new gardener, you expect all your efforts are going to pay off. But when you’re an experienced gardener, you realize like life, things doesn’t always work out that way. Don’t get discouraged. Ninety percent of the time, things work out.”
Jim Jenkins Lawn and Garden Center in Upper St. Clair carries Easy Bloom Pads. The pads are a circular biodegradable paper disk filled with a group of bulbs.
“You can dig one larger hole, just put the package in, cover it up and the next year you’ve got a nice clump of blooms,” says Lisa Jenkins, who co-owns the business with her husband. There are snowdrops, tulips, daffodils, mixes and more.
“You can put them in pots on either side of your door,” she says. “It’s also a way to make the planting look more natural. It’s better to have clumps here and there instead of rows. It makes them look like they came up on their own.”
Living in an area with a lot of deer, she has some of her garden protected by an electric fence. She has another favorite — one of the few truly deer-proof bulbs.
“I love allium. There’s different sizes. They get the huge purple balls on them,” Jenkins says. “It’s something different.”
“Snowdrops are one of the first things to bloom very early. They really multiply very nicely,” she says. “I’ll actually dig up a circle of turf in my lawn and tuck the snowdrops (bulbs) underneath and in the spring it looks like these beautiful white snowdrops are growing out of the grass. It’s an attention-getter.”
It’s important, Jenkins says, to find bulbs that are firm and healthy. They are living things and need to be their best when planted to perform at peak next spring.
Bigger is always better when it comes to bulbs. Some varieties, such as crocus and tulips, can attract the attention of rodents, which see them as nuts and will eat the newly planted bulbs. She uses products such as Shake Away, Critter Ridder and Animal Stopper to deter the pests.
For Lisa Jenkins, evergreens are one of the only trees, shrubs or perennials she wants her customers to plant this time of the year.
She has some great tips for using them for a live Christmas tree. Jenkins is confident it can be done as long as gardeners follow some simple rules. One of the first is to dig the planting hole before the ground freezes. Either cover the removed dirt or move it into the garage so it doesn’t freeze. Another option would be having a few bags of dirt waiting in the garage.
“The key is that the trees need to be acclimated properly,” she says.
The tree needs to first go into the cold, unheated garage for three to five days. After that, the tree goes down to the basement — where it’s cool but not as cold as the garage — for another three to five days. At that point, the tree can come up into the living area. Jenkins warns to try to keep that part of the house as cool as possible to keep the tree happy.
Before the tree goes back outside, the acclimation process is done in reverse, and Jenkins says it works for her customers who enjoy the tradition of a live tree. Keep that tree watered the whole way through the process. If they don’t have the moisture they need before winter hits in earnest, the plants can die.
“It’s not going it dry out as fast as a cut Christmas tree,” she says. “That’s a good thing.”
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.