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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Friday - November 02, 2007

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Planting, Seasonal Tasks, Transplants, Herbs/Forbs, Trees
Title: Optimum planting time for perennials and trees
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

Our group is running out of fall workdays. Is it OK to plant native perennials and small trees in Central Texas during the winter months? Or should we wait now until the spring?

ANSWER:

November, December and January have always been our favorite time to plants woody plants. If you already have them, then certainly the sooner you get them in the ground, the better. You don't want the roots to dry out, and you sure don't want them out of the ground when the first freeze comes. The ground is a great insulator, and will keep the new roots from being damaged. You should try very hard to avoid transplant shock-in other words, get water in the loose soil around the roots, at a small dribble from a hose, about 3 times a week. The average first frost in Austin is usually about December 1, but in this temperate region, the ground does not freeze, and frosts usually last only a few hours. While the plants are in dormancy during cooler weather, the moisture in the plant is down around the base and in the roots. A plant can be severely damaged or killed by a heavy, hard frost freezing the water in the plant. The cell walls can burst when the water expands as it freezes, and the damage can be fatal. Another protection for the newly planted trees and perennials is a good, thick coat of an organic mulch over their root systems. This will hold moisture in the soil, further insulate the roots, and as it decomposes, add still more warmth and help to enrich the soil.

If the plants are being held in plastic pots and a freeze is predicted, a friendly garage, if one is available, would be a good place to store them. Plastic is no insulator, and can get very cold and very hot, to match the outside temperature. And if you are holding plants in pots, be sure to keep them watered. Even in dormancy, some moisture is needed, and a plant without its roots in the earth is very susceptible to drying out.

To sum up, a plant waiting to be transplanted into a permanent position, and with its roots out of the ground, is better off being planted just about any time, but the best time is when it's cool and the plants are in dormancy.

 

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