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The screwdriver test can tell you whether you need to water your trees

January 8, 2019

Go outside and jam a screwdriver in the ground. If you act on what you learn, your trees will thank you.

During winter, homeowners often neglect to keep their trees, plants and yards well-watered, but the greenery needs hydration now.

“Any water is going to be better than nothing,” said Scott Evans, horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Office. “The fine roots can actually shrink as the soil dries out. Those fine roots are the ones that pick up the nutrients and the water.”

So on winter days when highs top 40 degrees — like the ones we have had lately — use the screwdriver test.

If a screwdriver 4 inches or longer easily sinks into the ground up to the handle, the ground is thawed enough to water.

“If not, it’s frozen,” Evans said. “It’s pretty self-explanatory.”

On mild days, it’s OK to hook up your hose again, Evans said. Focus first on newly planted shrubs and trees, then move onto established plants and your lawn.

Rather than turning on a sprinkler system, which would need to be winterized again later, Evans recommends using a hose or carrying around a 5-gallon bucket of water.

To make things easy, poke holes in the bottom of that bucket and drain 5 gallons on one side of a tree and 5 gallons on the other side.

Neglecting to water plants throughout winter starves the roots, Evans said, and the tree will have to use more resources in the spring to regrow those shriveled roots. Watering now helps the plant thrive.

Homeowners should aim to water about once a month throughout winter, provided that the ground passes the screwdriver test.

And in case you were wondering, Evans is on Team Flat-Head instead of Team Phillips Head: “It’s easier to get into the ground.”

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