Prepare your trees and shrubs for the changing weather

Posted: Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Looking up at fresh snow on Thunder Mountain, every ounce of my will directed at rolling it back uphill, I realize the end of summer is at hand. Leaves are blazing with color, those that still remain on the trees anyway, and the shrubbery is turning now too. Oranges and reds, bright yellows and burgundies, and occasional purples show on the lower foliage. Leaves, mined for their nutrients before being discarded, fall, as the plant kingdom prepares for the next season.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

This is planting season extrordinaire, since the roots are at their most active of the year. They are receiving the whole load of accumulated sugars and starches from the foliage and they are storing it in new tissue grown expressly for that purpose. This means that they are expanding, and that it's a good time to plant. The roots have a huge burst of growth during these last months before the ground freezes and even while soil temperatures are below 32 degrees, the roots are still active.

This month is a good time to fertilize trees and shrubs for next season. They have already gone into dormancy mode, so you will not be stimulating new growth. Use manures or slow-release nitrogen fertilizers, apply compost and seaweed as you cut back perennials and put a generous layer of mulch under the rhododendrons.

Best of all, this is a great time to look at your garden with a critical eye and start the work for next year. Walkways, decks, outdoor lighting and retaining walls are all easier to build now than they will be at any other time of the year. The soils are easy to dig. You can see what's going on and the temperature is conducive to a good workout in the yard.

When spring gets here the soils will be so cold and saturated that it is difficult to do anything. Any digging and the dirt becomes muck, perennials are just emerging, and the slight slip with the shovel can slice through an unobserved plant, and it feels uncomfortable to be on your knees in the dirt.

Dividing perennials is best left until spring, but digging them up and moving them around now is fine. Setting rocks and building fences or screens is easier now than at any other time of the year. Planting trees and shrubs is easier too, since the worry about keeping them well-watered during their establishment time is gone.

We planted a dozen big trees in the last couple weeks, the kinds that take five or six people to move. Twenty or 30-year-old Japanese maples, beech trees 15-feet tall, and Norway maples with trunks as big as a 2 by 4, are easier to plant now. Their huge root systems are wrapped in tarps and their tops are tied up to prevent them from whipping about in the backs of the trucks. We lift them with a forklift and tie them securely.

Backing the dumptruck up to the hole, we arrange a slide out of rough cut spruce 2 by 8's and slowly lower them into their new homes. The last few inches of adjustment are the most difficult, since we have to shift the huge balls gently, but when they settle into their new homes they look like they have always been there. This is difficult in the middle of the summer, but now it's much easier.

Hedges are good now too, rather than digging individual holes for each plant, we make a planting trench all along the run of the space. Rototilling in fertilizers, soil amendments and lots of the native peat, we prepare a planting bed for the new wall of foliage.

This allows the roots to spread out through the improved soil sharing the nutrients and improved drainage as they blend into a single unit. This soil improvement is the most important step in any landscaping work.

Checking out the new police station can ease any doubt about the effort put into soil improvement being valuable. Look at the spread of the ground covers. These lignonberries and creeping dogwoods are native here, but they never grow like this in the wild. Look at the multitude of new shoots on the snowdrift flowering crabapples, their tops are three times as large as last year, and the shrubbery is flourishing too.

This month is one of the busiest times of the year in the garden. Enjoy it, and relish the results for years to come.

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