The Dirt on Roots: Wintertime

Frost heave

By Michael Leach

Roots don’t sleep during the winter. They continue doing their job of absorbing water and other essentials albeit at a slower rate. But most important for small flora — they hold the plant in place during the raucous season.

Because roots continue growing in the fall, even as the top of the plant goes dormant, autumn is a traditional planting time for trees and shrubs. Perennials of many sorts also take to fall planting/transplanting — up to a point.

Because perennials are bantam weights compared to woodies, they need extra time to grab hold before the soil begins freezing and thawing. This process goes on for months in some winters and places. Come spring — or before — the little plants may have been pushed nearly out of the ground. Even a bit of exposed root can cripple or kill.

Take a walk around the garden when weather allows and check for bare roots. Gently tamp plants back into place or replant if soil is workable the exposure is pronounced and mulch lightly.

Come fall, err on the side of caution when transplanting and quit early. Even then, a few inches of mulch can help even the winter survival odds — and keep those roots in their proper place.


The Dirt on Roots: Lesson 2

By Michael Leach

Unseen legions of microscopic helpers make gardens grow as much as an army of horticulturists — but they rarely get credit.

They live in a world populated with as many varieties of life forms as the ocean, maybe more. And like the ocean, the sun only illuminates a small part of this realm.

Their world connects to ours through the roots of crabgrass, redwoods and all the plants between.

We call their world dirt but such a critical part of the biosphere deserves honor, if not reverence. Soil is the place where most of what a plant needs to live is found, where our gardens take root and where our feet are planted.

That is why garden experts recommend amending the soil by spreading compost or well-rotted cow manure over the bed and tilling it in as a key to success.

What a lot of work when all we want to do is plant lettuce seeds.

Well what if the soil is the clay commonly found in central Ohio and many other Midwestern places and planted “as is”?

The site will dry to adobe a few days after we water in our lettuce seeds and begin looking at salad recipes.

The Dirt On Roots: Lesson 1

By Michael Leach

“Amend the soil” appears as a commandment in almost every gardening how-to book and article. For good reason. Roots are work horses ensuring a plant’s survival.

Granted the leaves and flowers attract all the attention and are the make-or-break for inclusion in a decorative scheme. Plus they are an essential in the plant’s survival kit. Leaves make the food. Flowers make seeds. But without the roots, that amazing leafy food factory shuts down and flowers wither. End of story.

Gardeners, however, can make a happy ending by providing a pleasant working environment for roots, which take in most of the water, nutrients — and oxygen. Adding compost, leaf mold, rotted barnyard manure, shredded leaves and such helps loosen the soil allowing more air, water and nutrients to penetrate and be available to the roots.

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