This is my annual reminder that fall is the best time for planting many varieties of trees and shrubs. I said “many” because evergreens are best planted in spring.
Trees and shrubs like fall’s warm days and cooler nights. Also, we get more moisture in the fall, although water hasn’t been a problem this summer. All of these factors combine to help your new plants adapt to their new environment.
By the time they defoliate and go dormant for winter, they’ll be nicely established and have a head start over trees and shrubs planted next spring.
The “right plant, right place” mantra applies in the fall as well as spring. Before going to the garden center, check on whether your planting site is in sun or shade and how much moisture and wind the site receives. Read the nursery tag on the plant and/or consult with a horticulturist at your garden store to be sure you’re buying a plant that will thrive with minimal maintenance. Also, be sure the plant will grow in our hardiness zone, which is zone 5 or 6, depending on where you live.
Finally, be sure the tree looks good. Before you go to the garden store, check the Internet for photos of the tree or shrub you want to buy. You may even want to print out a photo and take it with you. At the nursery, examine a number of trees or shrubs of that variety. Select the one that best resembles the photo. The branches should have good structure, not crossing or interfering with each other. They also should be attached to the trunk at an angle, not straight out. Those growing straight out are weakly attached water sprouts – not good. Check the roots, especially where the trunk begins to flare out to form the roots. This should be visible, not covered with soil. If you aren’t happy with any of the plants you see, go to another store. One personal rule that I have is to buy plants only from local garden centers, not big box stores.
Some garden centers may have sales to get rid of spring plants that have been in the nursery all season. Others may have ordered new stock for the fall planting season. Whether to save money or buy new is your choice.
The planting technique doesn’t change in fall. Dig the planting hole two to three times wider than the rootball, but only as deep. If potted, remove the plant from its pot. If balled and burlapped, remove the wire basket or rope but leave the burlap around the ball.
Set the plant in the hole and backfill, stopping occasionally to press the backfill to fill in any air pockets. Do not pile soil up against the trunk. Finally, water well and mulch. Spread 2 to 3 inches of mulch, but do not pile it up against the trunk in a mulch volcano. Before winter, add another inch of mulch, but be prepared to remove that extra inch in spring.
If your tree is a tender variety or you planted it in the direct path of the prevailing wind, you may have to build a wood or burlap shelter around it to protect it against winter winds. Stake it only if necessary, and be sure you don’t use wire or anything that will “bite” into the bark.