If you want to plant a tree and thought you missed your window of opportunity this year, good news. Procrastinating on this garden project worked in your favor. Though many gardeners think of spring for tree planting, fall is actually the ideal time to introduce a new tree into your landscape.
Plant trees in fall and you get a head start on establishing them before the ground freezes, says arborist and urban forester R.J. Laverne, who is manager of education and training for the Davey Tree Expert Company.
“Fall is the season when trees turn their energy to growing new roots, whereas springtime is the season for growing new foliage and twigs,” says Laverne.
“Putting trees in the ground at this time of year allows the roots to become established before they are called upon the following spring to resume pumping water and nutrients up to the rapidly growing foliage. The more time the tree has to establish roots, the more quickly the tree will grow and the better life it will have overall.”
Here Laverne shares his expert tips for successful tree planting this fall.
Select the right tree for the right site. Don’t try to fight Mother Nature. Help guarantee that your tree gets off to a good start and enjoys a healthy life by choosing the right tree for your yard. “Consider the tree’s growth at maturity and requirements for nutrients and water,” says Laverne, who suggests having a soil test done on the area in which you want to plant.
A soil test provides invaluable information, such as the pH of the soil and its structure. “A classic example of the need to know about your soil is the pin oak (Quercus palustris),” says Laverne. “This tree prefers acidic conditions and will struggle in alkaline soil.”
Dig a planting hole that is shallow and wide. “One of the most common mistakes we see with tree planting is the tree gets planted too deeply in a narrow hole, which causes the roots to grow in a circular pattern rather than venturing out into the surrounding soil and establishing a strong foothold,” says Laverne. “Those trees that don’t get a good grip on native soil are prone to wind throw and failure.”
The planting hole should be four to five times the width of the tree’s root ball, and the tree should come out 1/2-inch higher than the surrounding ground after planting.
Provide adequate water. Keep irrigating your newly planted tree up until the soil freezes—even after all of the other trees in your yard have lost their leaves. Resume regular watering in the late winter when the ground thaws. If you live in a climate where the ground doesn’t freeze in winter, water when there is no rainfall.
Mulch. Applying a layer of shredded bark to the soil preserves moisture and provides a protective layer for the roots. Place a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch 3 inches away from the base of the tree, going out to beyond the tree’s canopy.
Stake only when necessary. Only support newly planted trees that are in danger of tipping over, such as those in windy areas or on slopes. When you stake, use a nylon strap designed for staking that will prevent damaging friction and rubbing when the tree moves in the wind.
Remove protective coverings. If your tree roots came wrapped in burlap or the trunk is covered with tape, remove all of this before planting.
Julie Bawden-Davis is a garden writer and master gardener, who since 1985 has written for publications such as Organic Gardening, Wildflower, Better Homes and Gardens and The Los Angeles Times. She is the author of seven books, including Reader’s Digest Flower Gardening, Fairy Gardening, The Strawberry Story, and Indoor Gardening the Organic Way, and is the founder of HealthyHouseplants.com. She also uses the TidBitt’s subscription platform to manage Clippings: Gardening in the Great Indoors.