Fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs in your garden, however, it is important to properly plant them so they will be healthy for many years. Spring is when we often think about planting trees and shrubs because it is the time of year we see plants growing and get excited about new plants for our gardens. Planting in the fall allows enough time for the plant to establish a root system during cooler weather and be more apt to survive the following year’s hot summer temperatures. Below are tips for successfully planting a tree or shrub this fall:
- Site prep: Before jumping straight to planting, it is important to take time to prepare the area. One important factor to consider is checking the proposed site for potential drainage problems. No matter how careful you are when planting a tree or shrub, if it is a poorly-drained area, the plant will struggle to survive. Well-drained soils are needed to prevent plant roots from sitting in saturated soils with little air. If the site is a poorly drained area, correct the area if possible. If it is not possible or you do not want to correct the drainage, then select a new site with better drainage. If you have the opposite problem of sandy soils where moisture is difficult to hold, organic matter (i.e. compost) will be valuable, as it improves the water-holding capacity of sandy soils.
A soil test can prove to be valuable before planting to determine the fertility of the soil.
A soil test can tell you if you need lime, phosphorus or potassium. The soil test results can let you know if you need to fertilize or not. Soil test kits are available at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service Office and are free of charge from April through November.
- Digging the planting hole: Sounds easy enough, but this is often where some major mistakes are made that will lead to a poorly growing or dead plant later on. The most common mistake made is planting too deeply in the ground. When preparing your planting holes, dig the hole two to three times as wide as the root ball and the same depth as the root ball. Make sure the hole has a firm bottom to prevent the plant from sinking as the soil settles. When placing the plant in the hole, the soil surface around the trunk should be at the same level as the ground or slightly higher.
- Before placing the plant in the hole: Loosen roots that might be root bound. Root bound refers to when the roots have run out of growing space in a container and have begun circling at the bottom of the root ball. If the roots are not loosened before planting, the roots tend to continue growing in a circle and do not spread out into their newly available space. Fill the hole back with the soil that you removed from the planting hole and not with a different soil. Using the same soil you removed from the planting hole will encourage future root growth beyond the planting hole.
- After planting: Add a 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch around the plant. Mulch will conserve moisture, discourage weeds, and improve the aesthetics of the landscape. It is best to avoid a heavy application of fertilizer, especially nitrogen fertilizer, after planting. After the tree or shrub is planted, you want to allow time for the root system to get established. If you apply too much nitrogen too early you will encourage shoot growth which will cause an imbalance in the root and shoot growth. It is best to allow the roots to get established and if you planted in the fall, wait to start adding small applications of fertilizer until the spring. After a few years, the plant will become established and you can increase the amount of fertilizer you add. When planting a tree or shrub, never put fertilizer directly in the planting hole before putting the plant in the hole. Putting fertilizer in the hole will allow direct contact of the fertilizer with the roots which will result in fertilizer burn.
- Watering: After planting and mulching, a tree or shrub should be watered slowly and well. The first few months after planting is when many plants die from too little or too much water. Be familiar with what kind of drainage your soil has to better judge how much watering you will need to do. Plants in well-drained soil often get too little water and ones in poorly drained soil often get too much water. Your goal should be to maintain constant moisture but not saturated in the root ball area for the first few months to encourage roots to grow into surrounding soil. Your newly planted tree or shrub should be monitored closely the first year and watered when needed. As the plant becomes established, you can reduce the frequency of watering.
Planting trees and shrubs now during the fall season, will allow the plants to be better established and struggle less during a hot, dry summer. Simply by paying attention to some details before and during planting can lead to successful plantings you can enjoy for many years to come.
Jessica Strickland is an agriculture extension agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County.