Fall is the ideal time to plant ornamental trees, shade trees, fruit trees, or landscape shrubs. While these can also be planted in the spring, planting in the fall has some advantages. The roots of your newly-planted shrub or tree will continue to grow through the winter as long as the soil temperature stays above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Here in southeast Texas during mild winters, our soil may stay above 40 degrees all winter long. This gives the plant several extra months to become established before the surge of growth during spring. Additionally, planting in the fall avoids trying to establish and keep moisture around new trees during the hot months of early summer.
If you are buying bare-root trees (the ones not sold in containers), these should be planted in mid-winter, perhaps late December to January, when the trees are completely dormant. Often, nurseries will not even send you the bare-root trees until the time is right.
Site selection is the most important part of deciding to plant a tree. Any tree planted in the wrong place is doomed to fail, or will at least have a shortened lifespan.
Unless you are planting a water-loving plant like bald cypress, choose a planting site that is well-drained (meaning it doesn’t have standing water after a good rain), and receives the proper amount of sunlight – most fruit and shade trees require AT LEAST 8 hours of full, direct sunlight.
If your desired planting site occasionally stands water or is mostly flat, the best practice to ensure the life of the tree is to build up a mound on which to plant the tree. Giving the tree at least 6 inches of soil above the surrounding grade will help to keep it from drowning or succumbing to root rot during periods of wet weather. This can be done by building a raised bed with 6-12” wooden boards or by simply just building a mound with very gradually-sloped sides. Raised beds should be a least 4’x4’ for most fruit trees, and more for larger shade trees.
Here are a few additional tips from Dr. Douglas Welsh, Landscape Horticulturist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service:
• Dig a hole large enough in diameter so that the root system has at least six inches of clearance on all sides. The root ball should rest on a solid soil foundation, so don’t dig the hole much deeper than the ball.
• Plant the tree or shrub slightly above the level of the surrounding soil, to allow for settling and increased soil drainage.
• Carefully place the tree or shrub in the hole. Handle the plant by the root ball, not by the trunk. A broken ball of earth can mean a dead plant. Always remove any container before you plant.
• Backfill the hole, using only the native soil removed from the hole; do not use soil amendments when planting large shrubs and trees. Fill the hole, and firm the soil around the plant. Water thoroughly to settle the soil around the roots and to eliminate any air pockets.
• Do not fertilize your tree or shrub after planting. Wait until early in the spring to do this, and even then, go lightly. Heavy applications of fertilizer may burn and injure the root system, and could possibly kill the plant.
• Watering has been and remains paramount in transplanting. At the time of transplanting, soak the root ball and surrounding soil. A thorough watering every 7 to 10 days dramatically increases the success ratio. More frequent watering may encourage root rot. Remember more trees and shrubs fail from over watering then from under watering.
• Before calling it a day, add 4 to 6 inches of mulch around the base of newly planted trees and shrubs. This helps to keep down weeds and conserve soil moisture. Use pine bark, compost, grass clippings, or leaves.
That last tip is probably one of the most important things to do after planting any tree. Competition from grass and weeds can severely reduce a tree’s ability to become established. At the very least, keep grass and weeds killed back from the base of trees out to the dripline.
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Feel free to contact us at any time with specific questions regarding tree or shrub establishment.