Fall Is the Best Time to Plant Trees and Shrubs

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young tree

Fall planted trees establish better than those planted in spring.

Fall is the best time to plant trees and shrubs in the South. Cooler air and soil temperatures reduce stress on plants and encourage root growth. Larger root systems help fall planted trees and shrubs perform better next summer than those that are planted in the spring.

Know Your Conditions

Whether you are just beginning your landscape this fall or adding to an already established yard, remember that great gardens don’t just happen – they develop through careful planning. Before purchasing plants, take note of your growing conditions. Do you have sun or shade? If you only have shade part of the day, which part is it – morning or afternoon? Many plants that prefer full shade will be fine if they get some morning sun. On the other hand, areas that receive morning shade but full afternoon sun should be planted with full sun plants.

Also consider your soil – is it mostly sand or clay, or a mixture? Does water drain away quickly or slowly after a storm? Have you had your soil tested in the past three years? If not, early fall is the perfect time to submit a soil sample for testing.

Soil test results will tell you your soil’s pH (the measure of how acidic or basic your soil is), which will help you choose plants that will be happy in your soil conditions. The results will also let you know what type of nutrients your soil needs to support healthy plant growth. Soil testing supplies are available from any N.C. Cooperative Extension office. Learn more about soil testing in North Carolina.

Improve Your Soil

Knowing your growing conditions will help you choose plants that will thrive in your landscape will minimal care. Even so, most plants will grow better if you improve your soil by adding composted organic matter. Just adding a small amount of compost to the planting hole does not really help though. To really give plants a boost, plant in beds that have been well amended by spreading three to four inches of compost over the top then tilling the compost into the top six to eight inches of the soil.

The type of organic matter you use is not that important as long as it has been composted. Compost you make at home is just as good as compost purchased from garden centers or in bulk. Be aware that some commercially available composts can raise soil pH and may not be the best choice for acid loving plants such as blueberries, azaleas and camellias. Amend beds where you plan to grow acid loving plants with finely ground pine bark, which is sometimes sold as soil conditioner, and do not add lime.

Peat moss is readily available, but its usefulness as a soil amendment is limited. The only thing peat moss does is hold water. This is okay for extremely sandy soils, but peat moss should not be added to clay soils or soils that do not drain well. In areas with poor drainage, you should either create raised planting beds or amend the soil with compost and choose plants that tolerate wet conditions. Visit Extension’s Plant Database to find the right plants for your landscape.

Plant The Right Way 

tree planting diagram

Dig the planting hole twice the diameter of the root ball with gently sloping sides, and no deeper than the root ball.

Most plants that die within a few months of being planted do so because they were not planted properly or because they were not watered correctly. In fact, it is rare for a tree or shrub to die from insect or disease problems within the first year of planting.

Planting too deep is a common mistake. Trees and shrubs that are planted too deep may die quickly or may linger for several seasons, but never really thrive. Trees and shrubs should never be planted any deeper than they were growing in their container. When digging a hole to plant any type of woody plant, make sure to dig no deeper than the depth of the root ball. Dig the hole wide enough to place the plant in and still have plenty of room to fill the soil back in around the root ball. Gently settle the soil around new plants instead of packing it in.

Thoroughly water newly planted trees and shrubs and mulch the root zone. Check new plantings every few days by feeling the root ball and surrounding soil. Water plants when the root ball feels dry. Apply water slowly to allow it time to soak in and moisten the root ball and surrounding soil.

More tips for planting and establishing trees and shrubs are found in the Extension Gardener Handbook, available free online.

Tree and shrub planting specifications are illustrated in this University of Florida Extension publication.

For answers to your gardening questions, contact a Chatham County Master Gardenersm volunteer. There are several ways you can reach us: