Fall is for planting. I think what truly drives our desire to plant in the fall is the inherent sense that winter is coming and we should prepare. There’s no better way to celebrate the beautiful fall season and the coming of winter than by planting a tree. It’s our investment in the future.
Choosing trees you want to plant is the easy part—matching the trees with an acceptable site is the challenge. Even the greatest of trees are doomed to fail if they are planted in the wrong environment; these same great trees are doomed to fail if they are planted incorrectly. Correct planting is a must for success; otherwise, it could fail to thrive and become stalled in growth.
Choosing and Transporting
Planting trees is great fun, so let’s review how to do it right. We will assume you have already selected a tree appropriate for the site. If you need help with this contact your local horticulturist, favorite garden center, or community tree planting coordinator.
Handle and transport the tree correctly. If the tree is balled and burlapped then it is imperative to protect the integrity of the soil and root ball. They can weigh a lot, not to mention bottom-heavy, making big trees very difficult to move. The soil and root ball must not be dropped onto or out of the truck bed. If the soil and root ball are damaged or cracked, then you have ripped or torn off valuable roots that aid in the establishment of the tree. Be careful and select a smaller, easier to handle tree if necessary.
Transport the tree preferably in a covered truck or van. If that is not available, the top of the tree must be wrapped completely to prevent windburn and damage to valuable leaves and buds. Never transport an uncovered tree.
Equally important is the protection of the trunk. If the bark is damaged this will also affect the tree’s ability to establish itself—the bark is the site of valuable conductive tissue moving water and nutrients throughout the plant.
Digging the hole
Now that you have your tree safely home, it is time to dig the hole. First remove any sod from the area to be dug. This is easily accomplished with a square-nose nursery spade, which is also our preferred tool for digging. Skim the sod and remove it from the area; do not place hunks of the sod into the planting hole.
A round but irregular hole is fine. Dig the hole twice as wide as the root ball you will be planting. Digging deeper than the height of the root ball is not necessary. The top or surface of the root ball should be at “nursery level,” which means the top of the root ball should be at the same level as the ground once planted. Never plant the root ball above or below nursery level. Correct it if needed. If you hit big rocks and can’t dig any deeper, move over to where you can dig the correct sized hole. If you dig and realize you have standing water, correct the drainage problem or make sure the tree you have chosen likes a wet site.
Placing the tree
The hard work is done. With the tree near the hole, gently lift or roll the root ball into the planting hole. Get help from a friend or neighbor if necessary. If there is a wire basket, cut it off. Then cut off or peel back the top of the burlap and remove any twine or string around the trunk or ball.
If you have a containerized tree, remove the container. Cut it off if you need to. Don’t worry if some of the soilless media spills out, simply discard it. For container stock only—not balled trees—score or cut the root system with a sharp nursery spade or knife in three places around the root ball to sever any circling roots.
Filling the hole
Now fill in the hole. Using only the soil you removed from the hole, fill in the bottom third and lightly tamp or toe it in. Stand back from the tree and make sure it’s straight. Then fill the rest of the hole to nursery level and again lightly tamp or toe it in. Never amend the soil you take out of the hole separately. If you need to amend the soil you should amend the entire area first, then dig the hole and plant.
Finally, apply a layer of mulch 2 to 3 inches deep around the tree, taking care not to mound the mulch up around the trunk.
Once planted, water it well then water once a week when rainfall is inadequate, as long as warm weather persists, and start watering again in the spring once the ground has fully thawed. It’s very hard to tell people how much to water a new tree, but in general you want to slowly hand water the root ball until you know it and the surrounding area are soaked. If using a sprinkler irrigation system, put a pie pan in the general area and water until you have caught 1 inch of water.
Staking is generally not necessary for a tree that has an adequate sized root ball and has been planted correctly.
The best thing about planting in the fall is that a tree’s root system will continue to develop into early winter, as long as the soil temperatures are warm enough. This means less watering for you and a healthier tree in the spring. Fall is the most successful time for planting.