From a tree’s point of view, fall is an excellent planting time—even better than spring. Many nurseries dig bare-root plants in the fall, sell some, and store the remainder through winter. Such plants are fresher in the fall, and the selection is better. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing and planting a tree!
Why Plant Trees in Fall?
Perhaps most important, fall planting allows a tree plenty of time to establish its root system before winter. Roots begin growing as soon as they touch moist earth and continue to do so as long as the soil temperature stays above about 40°F (4°C). Then, when the first warm breath of spring finally coaxes the growth of new shoots, the fall-planted tree is in place, its roots already growing in the soil.
The soil is usually more fit for digging in fall than in spring, too. In the fall, summer’s warmth lingers long enough to keep the soil moist, not sodden, and crumbly for much of the time—just the right condition for digging planting holes. Plus, if you’re in an area that gets a lot of snow, you won’t have to deal with all the snowmelt (or the resulting mud) if you plant in fall.
Buying a Tree
When buying trees for your space, you have a few different options in terms of what kind of nursery-grown tree you get:
Bare-root trees are grown in the field and then dug while they are leafless in either fall or spring. Fall-dug trees may be sold immediately or stored with their roots packed in moist material. Root loss during digging is a drawback; however, these trees can be easily and inexpensively shipped, giving you a wider selection if you can’t go to local nursery. And because you can see the roots, you can easily assess their condition. Bare-root trees also tend to be the cheapest option because they are the most lightweight.
Container-grown trees spend the first part of their lives in pots. The potting mix is lighter than field soil, so such plants can be shipped economically. Ideally, the plant spends enough time in the container to allow its roots to fill it. Watch out, though: Some vendors buy bare-root trees and pot them up for quick sale as container plants. Equally bad are container-grown trees that have been left too long in their containers. If possible, slide a container-grown tree out of its pot to see if it is root-bound (i.e., its roots are thick and tangled). Restrain yourself from buying the largest tree possible; it should be no taller than three to four times the height of its container.
Balled-and-burlapped trees often have been dug from clay soil, the removal of which might lead to root loss. Thus, such a tree is lifted with a ball of soil that is then wrapped with burlap. Clay soil holds together better than lighter soils, but it is also heavy, so the weight and the delicacy of the root ball make mail-order shipping of these trees unfeasible; they must be bought locally in most cases. Plant selection is therefore more limited. The weight also makes it harder to plant these trees yourself without the use of machinery, depending on the tree’s size.
How to Plant a Tree
1. Find the right planting site. Pay attention to the tree’s needs for sunlight and soil drainage. No amount of care can make up for a gross mismatch.
2. Check the soil. If it is ready for digging, it will be just moist enough to crumble. If the soil is not ready, wait for it to dry or water it.
3. Mark out the proper hole. New roots establish more quickly in a hole that is roughly twice the diameter of the root ball and no deeper than necessary to let the tree stand at the same level as the surrounding soil—or higher, if the tree is to be planted atop a mound for proper drainage. The base of the tree shouldn’t be lower than the surrounding soil level, as water will pool around the trunk, potentially leading to rot.
4. Remove the sod, if planting in grass. Cut the surface vegetation with a shovel or grass edger, then work a flat-bladed shovel or sod stripper beneath the vegetation and lift it off. If you’re planting in an established bed that already contains a layer of mulch, scrape away the mulch from the planting site before digging the hole.
5. Lay down a tarp to place soil on. Once you start digging the hole, you need a place to put the dirt. Lay down a tarp or plastic sheeting so that soil doesn’t get into your lawn.
6. Dig the hole. Taper the hole from ground level at the edges to the full depth at the center. Rough up the sides of the hole to break up any glazing from the shovel blade that might slow root penetration.
7. Prepare the roots. If the tree is bare-root, cut back to healthy tissue any roots that are damaged or blackened by disease. Also shorten any lanky roots that do not conveniently fit into the hole. Shovel some soil into the hole to create a mound on which to spread the roots. Throw another shovelful onto the roots to steady the plant. If the tree is container-grown, slide it out of the pot. Untangle and splay out roots that outgrew the pot and were forced to grow in circles. Shorten any that are too long. If the roots are too tightly bound to untangle, make four 1-inch deep slices from the top to the bottom of the root ball. Loosen the large roots and tease out smaller ones. If the tree is balled and burlapped, slide it right into the hole, being careful not to break the ball. Cut the string binding the burlap and peel the wrap as close to the base as possible. Natural burlap will decompose, so some scraps can be left in the hole. Synthetic material can strangle the tree, so cut away at it to remove as much as possible, without disturbing the ball.
8. Fill in around the tree. Use a stick or your fingers to work the soil up against and in among the roots. Soil shouldn’t be packed in too tightly, as this can make it harder for the roots to find footing, but there also shouldn’t be any air pockets. When the hole is about halfway filled, spray down the soil with water to settle it. Wait for the water to soak in, then continue filling.
9. Mulch. Spread a 3-inch layer of wood chips or straw over the bare ground to within a few inches of the trunk. This will insulate the roots to keep them growing long into the fall and prevent freezing and thawing that leads to heaving. Note that mulch can cause crown rot. To avoid this, pull the material up to—but not right against—the trunk. Protect the trunks from bark-feeding rodents that sometimes winter in the mulch with a cylinder of 1/4-inch-mesh hardware cloth or wrap them with paper or plastic wraps sold for this purpose. (Remember to remove them in the spring; trunk wraps make great homes for insects in the summer.)
10. Stake, if necessary. Plants that are 10 feet tall or higher and trees at windy sites should be staked for a year, until their roots grab firmly to the soil. Use soft material or padded wire where the support touches the trunk.
11. Water well and maintain. Slowly soak the ground beneath the tree. Plan on 1 gallon per week per square foot spread of the roots. Water throughout the end of the growing season and longer for larger trees. Keep the mulched area free of weeds, adding mulch as needed at least for a few years.