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    Why fall is time for planting

    Authored by Leah Chester-Davis

    “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” So says a folk proverb. While trees and shrubs can be planted any time of the year, the best time is during the fall for much of the country. When cooler temperatures are on the horizon, it is time to start thinking about what trees or shrubs might enhance your landscape and plan accordingly. Here are a few benefits to planting trees and shrubs in the fall.

    Reasons to plant in the fall

    • Watering needs are lower
    • Roots have a chance to develop
    • Plants experience less stress
    • Spring growth is enhanced
    • Healthy trees confer many benefits

    Watering needs are lower

    Think about the dog days of summer when, for many places, the environment is hot and dry and the temperatures soar. Planting a tree or shrub during these conditions puts stress on the plant right off the bat, even if you water it daily. But if you wait until fall, watering requirements lessen because the cooler weather slows growth, the plant loses less water through its leaves due to transpiration, and the root system isn’t as stressed.

    Roots have a chance to develop

    Planting in the fall gives trees and shrubs a chance to develop a strong root system over the fall and winter. While the plant may be dormant, roots will continue to grow and develop during cooler temperatures. When you get trees and shrubs into the ground in the fall you can usually rest assured that important work is being done belowground where energy is being directed to strengthen your plant’s health. During the fall season there may be more rainfall or other precipitation that helps the tree roots become more established. If rainfall is absent, watering the plant is important. It will need about an inch of water per week. 

    Plants experience less stress

    While stress can be an adverse factor in our lives, stress can also be difficult for plants. Often, stress levels for them are highest under the hot, drought-like conditions of summer. When a plant is stressed, it may be more susceptible to not only hot, dry temperatures but also to pests and diseases. The best way to minimize those threats is to give it optimal conditions for growth. 

    Spring growth is enhanced

    When you give your plants a chance to establish a strong root system over the fall and winter months, not only will they be better able to withstand warmer temperatures next spring and summer, but they likely will also reward you with a surge of spring growth. 

    Add mulch but skip the fertilizer

    Add mulch around the tree to help suppress weeds. Avoid adding fertilizer when planting as it can burn the roots.

    Healthy trees confer many benefits

    In addition to providing beauty and enjoyment, trees and shrubs are an investment in your landscape, often adding to property values. They provide many other benefits. Depending on where they are situated near your home, they can reduce energy costs. For example, the U.S. Forest Service says that strategically placed trees save up to 56 percent on annual air-conditioning costs. Evergreens that block winter winds can save 3 percent on heating. They also remove carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air. 

    As with most anything in the garden, planning is helpful. Here are a few guidelines.

    Planning for fall planting

    • Consider your region
    • Purchase quality plants
    • Give plants the best start with proper site preparation
    • Avoid planting too deeply
    • Handle the plant by lifting the root ball
    • Fill the planting hold with native soil
    • Add mulch but skip the fertilizer

    Consider your region

    While planting trees and shrubs in the fall is often recommended for most regions of the country, there may be some exceptions, particularly when it comes to the colder climates. For example, North Dakota Extension recommends spring planting for trees and shrubs.  Iowa Extension recommends planting evergreens in mid-August through September to give them adequate time to become established before winter when they can be subject to desiccation injury and death. Consider your region in addition to your USDA Plant Zone. If uncertain, check with your local nursery or Extension office. 

    Purchase quality plants

    Plants, particularly shrubs and trees, are an investment. Start with healthy plants from a reputable garden center or nursery.

    Give plants the best start with proper site preparation

    The planting hole needs to be two to five times the width of the root ball or container. This will help give roots a chance to spread and grow more quickly. It is essential that the planting hole has good drainage to avoid plant problems. 

    Avoid planting too deeply

    The planting hole needs to be no deeper than the height of the root ball, according to Clemson Extension, which advises avoiding setting the root ball on loosened soil so that the tree will not settle too deeply. The root ball needs to rest on a solid soil foundation. In poorly drained or compacted soil, place the tree higher than its original planting depth at about 2 to 4 inches higher than the surrounding soil. Be sure to build the soil up beside the root ball so that the sides are not exposed. 

    Handle the plant by lifting the root ball

    When lifting the tree, do so with the root ball and not by the trunk to lessen the chances of damaging the trunk or separating it from the root ball.

    Fill the planting hole with native soil

    After the plant is placed in the hole, backfill it using the native soil removed from it. Firm the soil and water in thoroughly. 

    Fall provides a good window, so get planting!

    More fall gardening reads

    Get the most out of your landscape this year with a permaculture mulching practice called chop-and-drop. Read more on how to put into practice.
    If you are keeping the garden going or putting it to bed for the season, get your to-do and how-tos all in one place for the season.