Watering in winter

Yes, you should water shrubs in trees in winter

The last thing you are probably thinking about is dragging out a hose and watering your yard.

It’s still winter, even though the crocuses are starting to peek out of the soil, and there is no water in the irrigation system. Water now? Ugh.

But watering your trees and shrubs now is one of the best things you can do to give them a good chance of thriving next summer. Even if we get a short sprinkle of rain here and there, it’s not enough to make a dent in their water requirements.

It is especially important to water if you planted trees or bushes in the past few years. These plants don’t have adequate root systems established to withstand the damage of not receiving moisture for long periods of time.

It is hard to believe that dormant trees, without any leaves, need water, but without any moisture, those roots die back and sustain permanent damage.

If you have a xeriscaped yard with native plants accustomed to little winter precipitation, this is probably not as big of a concern. But even established trees can benefit from some winter watering. If you have grass planted around those trees, you can probably tell that it is getting a bit crunchy by now.

This takes a little patience and the better part of an afternoon at my house. I choose a warm weekend and get started early enough in the day that there’s plenty of time to finish before dark. You don’t want to be watering and have temperatures drop — it won’t do your trees much good if you end up with an ice rink.

According to Colorado State University Extension, the best way to water trees is slowly, when it is not freezing outside and without snow on the ground. The goal is to water deeply and patiently, so the water soaks in a foot below the surface. You could use a soaker hose or a frog-eye sprinkler to do this, or just turn your hose on slowly and place it at the edge of the root zone (that’s as far out as the branches reach).

Many times I’ve seen people water their trees by putting the hose right up against the trunk. This isn’t going to help you much, since the fine root hairs that need the water are actually located at the treeline. To find this, look up and see where your tree’s branches end. Picture your tree with a mirror image of the roots below the soil, reflecting the length of the branches.

The roots of most trees reach out to the edge of those branches, below the soil. That’s where you should be watering. Some of the roots may actually reach into your neighbor’s yard, depending on how close your trees are planted to a property line and how large your trees are.

How much do you water? Shrubs are easier to calculate. Plan on five gallons of water per month for small, established shrubs, and five gallons twice a month for small shrubs planted less than a year ago. Big shrubs need approximately 18 gallons of water per month, according to CSU.

Regarding trees, CSU recommends the rule of applying 10 gallons of water for each diameter inch of the tree trunk. How do you measure this? Diameter is the measurement across a circle. I admit to estimating a bit on this measurement in the past because I don’t readily remember the formula for figuring diameter given the circumference of a circle. There are websites that convert it for you — just Google one and take your pick.

So, let’s say my tree trunk has a circumference of about 39 inches. That means the diameter of the trunk is about 12.4 inches, according to an online calculator. So, I’ll need roughly 120 gallons of water for that tree this month.

Apart from getting a dozen 10-gallon buckets together and putting them all around the tree, how will I know when I’ve watered the tree 120 gallons? Well, I use one bucket and a hose. I time how long it takes for the hose, running slowly to fill up that 10-gallon bucket. Then I place the hose at the edge of the root zone, and let it run for the same amount of time it took to fill up the bucket.

For this tree, I would then move the hose around the root zone to 12 different spots (like a clock, with the tree as the center of the clock). But you could customize this method for any tree and for any amount of water you need.

Just remember, even if you’re not exact, giving your shrubs and trees a drink at all will help them. A little preparation now will prevent problems later, including leaf scorch, which can rear its ugly head in the heat of summer.


Mesa County Libraries hosts its second presentation in its “Beyond the Garden” series with a presentation from aquaponics expert Rick Kenagy at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Central Library. If you’re interested in ways to sustainably grow food year-round, this could be for you.

Kenagy will share his tips on getting started with an aquaponics system and his experiences managing the gardens at Canyon View Vineyard Church as well as other systems he has established. The presentation is free and does not require registration.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener and journalist who hosts “Diggin’ the Garden” the second Wednesday of every month at noon on KAFM 88.1. Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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