Tu B'shvat is around the corner, and the question comes up as it does every year: 'Is it going to rain on our designated planting day?' A logical thought since here in Israel, the New Year of the Trees falls at the height of our usually rainy winters. But for gardeners, the more important question to ask is: What trees are amenable to planting now, and which of them will successfully acclimate themselves to the chilly conditions?
Before we try to find an answer, let's consider the planting experience itself. This primal activity is deeply connected to the soil, to that satisfying moment when one draws close to a particular place and what is growing there, stamps one's own signature on it, and influences the country's landscape for years to come. Then there are the trees themselves, and their many virtues: they furnish us with shade, leaves, flowers, fruits, and above all, purer air and enriched oxygen. However you look at them, trees are of inordinate importance, and it's no wonder that a specific day on the Jewish calendar honours them: The New Year of the Trees (Rosh Hashana l'Ilanot), which falls on the 15th of the Hebrew month Shevat (i.e., Tu B'shvat).
To mark this day, children and adults alike plan what exactly they're going to plant in every bare-looking plot -- which is obviously the perfect spot for a tree! But it's important to consider not just where to plant, but what to plant for this celebration. The answer, writ large, is simple: the trees that cope best with severe winter weather are deciduous (their leaves drop off in the autumn and sprout again only in the spring). Evergreens, which look wonderful all winter with their fresh, green leaves, are actually not suited to starting a new life in a new place during this season. The deciduous trees cope with the chill by going into winter dormancy: their metabolism goes down, their leaves fall, and with a minimum of energy they get through the cold by waiting patiently for longer, sun-filled days. If you were planning to plant an evergreen tree (a stone pine, for instance, or a native oak), or an evergreen shrub (such as a viburnum, duranta, or dwarf pittosporum) -- we can only say, wait a bit! Evergreens are ever so much happier to root themselves in a place where they can enjoy the warmth of spring sunshine in exactly the right amount, when the nights envelop them gently.
Among the deciduous trees and shrubs that truly are suited for planting now, the stand-outs are the members of the rose family, which in Israel comprises primarily fruit trees like the native almond, nectarine, apple, and pear. These winter-dormant ones are sleeping so deeply that they can be purchased in a bare-root state, ideal for planting at this time. Bare-root plants may not look highly promising: a stick with roots at one end, which is meant to grow into a tree or shrub...but don't let this worry you. With warmer weather, that 'stick' will wake up and leaf out as though it had been there a year ago or more.
There are major horticultural advantages to using bare-root shrubs and trees: ease of transporting a freshly washed, long twiggy plant with a neat root ball (as opposed to trees attached to a large clump of soil); ease of planting (a smaller planting hole is required), and perhaps the major attraction: easier on your budget (bare-root plants are less expensive than potted ones).
The drawback to buying bare-root plants is that they may dry out. To prevent that, it's important to prepare the planting space so that the planting can be completed as quickly as possible after the plant is bought. Another possible issue for impatient gardeners: bare-root plants are young, actually in their infancy. They can test your patience while they are growing, each according to its own pace -- which is not always in sync with the homeowner who wants a mature garden, today!
The queen of the winter hibernators, and best planted bare-rooted, is of course the rose. If you purchase one that's bare-rooted, its price will be relatively low. You'll be able to see how healthy its roots are when you buy it, and to plant it without damaging them. Acquiring the same sized rose in a large container will cost three or four times as much. One slight difference between the potted plant and the packaged one is visible in the shop: the dormant, bare-rooted rose simply looks like three sticks (canes) coming out of the package, with some wrapping around the soil at the bottom. Like other dormant plants, these roses will have to find their permanent place in the wintry garden quickly so that they'll wake up promptly and healthily in the spring.
Happy Tu B'shvat to all planters and their plants!