Adventures in Gardening: Underground Happenings

by David Soper

In Winter, our plants are, by and large, in a dormant mode.

I was curious about that phenomenon so I talked to Dr. Michael Campbell at Penn State-Erie. He told me about an amazing time-keeper present in the plants' leaves and buds.

Last fall and winter, they were signaled by this chemical receptor (phytochrome)in response to the changes in light length and intensity to begin preparing for winter and shutting down.

The coming of winter involves intense activity that is not necessarily apparent to the average gardener. Just as bears (and certain garden writers) lay on additional body fat for winter, plants manufacture and store extra sugar, proteins and fats to facilitate their survival in the winter months and to provide energy for spring.

Only after the plant has accomplished these survival tasks does it begin to slow down. Leaves drop and stems stop their growing. The aboveground portion of herbaceous perennials dies back. Annuals and second year biennials do too, of course, but they really do die. (A strong argument for perennials.)

Many perennials have disappeared in our gardens. They've moved their act underground. They are very busy developing roots and storing food since they don't have to feed the stems, flowers and foliage. When they finally rest, their metabolism continues very slowly and they are quite non- responsive to the environment around them.

You may have heard the old garden axiom, "Perennials sleep the first year, they creep the second year, and they leap the third year." This pattern is largely powered by the roots and their winter activity.

Watering and winter seem mutually exclusive. After all, winter is the time to read seed catalogs, sit by the fire and plan next year's garden improvements. Still, evergreen plants and trees like Rhodies, Holly, Laurel and Boxwood need a surprising amount of moisture.

In fact, they are at risk of desiccation or drying out. Excessive moisture loss can lead to stress, shock and, even, death. Obviously, we know it can happen in droughts but it can happen in winter, too. Frozen soil and drying winds combine to deny plants the moisture they need. Evergreen plants that you put in your garden this past fall are at particular risk.

When plants are moved, their root systems are inevitably disturbed. It is the fine, hair-like root structures that are really feeding the plant. The larger roots mainly anchor the plant.

All plants, new or old, are exposed to the effects of a drying wind. Wind can draw moisture from the exposed cells. The damage is often subtle and might not show up until the following spring.

What can you do? Anti-desiccants or anti-transpirants have been developed to reduce this damage. Typically, they are sprayed but smaller potted plants can be dipped in the solution that coats the foliage. Wilt-pruf(r) and similar products provide a protective coating that holds in the moisure but still allows the plant to breath (Yes, you can suffocate a plant!) The manufacturers say one spraying per year is sufficient but some of the users have complained it washes off over time and they have better results with a reapplication midway through the winter.

Surprisingly, if the ground hasn't yet frozen, trees and shrubs you planted last fall should be watered every ten days or so, even if it rains!

David Soper, The Garden Guy, writes and lectures on gardening topics. Check out his books at

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