Winter busy time for landscaping

Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Almost every day now, somebody asks me if I'm all buttoned up and ready for the winter, the supposition is that landscape season is over and all we have to do is wait for the spring. This is one of the busiest times of the year, and as always we will be lucky to get done with all we have to do before we just can't do any more.

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

This time of year is prime planting season, we are putting trees and shrubs into landscapes at record rates; groves, hedges, island beds and privacy screens are being installed. People are calling and meeting me at the nursery to get their selections, truckloads of Roses, Rhododendrons, Spiraeas and Dogwoods are heading out to the yards and gardens of people all over the borough. The race is on to plant before the ground freezes, before winter really sets in, and this autumn is likely to be shorter than we want.

The seasonal storms have whipped leaves from many exposed trees, and of course some species loose their foliage early, but the loss of leaves is not a signal that all is over for the planting season. Leaves are being discarded; the color changes indicate that their nutrients are being stripped away and transported into the storage organS of the woody plants. The colorful show we all love is an indication of high activity levels in those busy beings.

Woody plants, those that form a permanent structure above ground instead of retreating totally to the dark safe underground, are pretty complex creatures. They breathe, eat, grow, respond to stimuli and stress, manufacture their food from the air, water, and sunlight, and who knows if they dream. They do all these things slower than we do, but in such immense numbers, that they create another very significant layer of life in our biosphere.

This time of year, the sugars that they have been creating all summer are being stored as starches in the bark and roots. The tissues where these sugars were manufactured are being emptied. The rich green of their thick flesh is fading to translucence, and the burgundies, oranges and brilliant gold of the remnant leaves are colors that were always there, but concealed by the chlorophyll. These bright flags and pennants whip about in the gales and slip off their branches, but not before they have sent their accumulated treasures into the storage vaults of the trees.

The trees are busily putting these materials away for the winter, roots are swelling, new tissues are growing underground and layers of potato like flesh is being formed along the roots. Recent research shows us that much of the storage is done aboveground too. The bark and buds of the shrubs and trees contains significant amounts of this stored food. I guess the deer and moose already knew that.

Part of our work involves looking at the roots of the plants, we dig and plant almost every day and we see the seasonal changes exhibited by these generally hidden parts of the plants. The autumn roots are so rich and thick looking that it is a pleasure to handle them. We planted dozens of Roses, Spiraeas and Sorbarias at the Terry Miller Building last week. The roots of these shrubs were so shiny and vibrant with growth and life that we marveled at their vigor. The leaves were turning yellow and red, but the roots were pearly, shimmering, and full of purpose.

The roots will be growing for another month, busily seeking space and settling into their new sites, but even after that they are not truly dormant. They still respire; they absorb oxygen, and give off carbon dioxide, they tick slowly along waiting for the signal to spring up again, but they are not asleep. They are just waiting.

This time of the year is prime transplanting time, if you have a project that you are doing this fall, and you have some shrubs or trees potentially impacted by the earthwork, don't write them off. They will surprise you with their tenacity. Make sure to get enough of the root in the excavation, give them a good soil base and sufficient drainage, and water them in with some root stimulating vitamin B-1 and you will have a great success rate.

Creating new landscapes, expanding driveways underground utility work, or even moving shrubs to accommodate a lovely new fence, dig and plant with confidence. Fall is good planting weather.

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

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