Fall into planting trees, shrubs

Tony Nye - OSU Exension

Did you know now is a great time of year to plant trees and shrubs? Even though we have been getting some rain recently, the temperatures are about perfect to work in.

This time of year we find that the soil is warmer now than in spring, and there’s still plenty of time for roots to get established before the snow flies. Roots can grow in soil as cold as 40 degrees, and soil remains warm long after the air temperature drops.

If weather holds, we should be able to still plant trees and shrubs for a few more weeks. Just pay attention to that weather man for potential frost.

When we get ready to plant trees and shrubs it is always important to understand the growth habits so that we give the tree plenty of space to allow for full size growth and expansion, as well as plenty of space for good air circulation. You don’t want to have to transplant a tree or shrub later.

Keep in mind you don’t want its roots getting into your sewer system or it bumping into your house or over-shadowing other plants.

Be sure if the tree has some size to it that you use some smarts when moving it to its perfect spot. If it’s bulky or heavy, use a wheelbarrow to push, a tarp to drag, or have lots of people to help.

A critical piece of information is to be sure to dig the planting hole two to three times wider than, and just as deep as, the root mass or root ball.

If you shovel the dug-out soil onto a tarp, it will be easier to refill the hole later. Once the hole is the right size, dig in the shovel a few times to loosen the bottom of the hole; this will make it easier for the roots to spread.

Don’t forget to remove all wires, twine, and plant tags. A very important step to prevent the tree from girdling or choking itself with the roots.

If the root ball is in burlap, you can remove it or keep it; it will decompose however, I prefer to remove just to be on the safe side.

I have seen some burlap still there a few years after planting and it may restrict good root development.

If your plant is in a pot and doesn’t pull out easily, it may mean the pot is root-bound. You may have to cut the container in order to free the roots.

Don’t worry about cutting the roots; cutting encourages new roots to grow.

In fall, plants naturally shut down for winter. The roots don’t need to use their energy to supply nutrients or water to grow stems and new leaves this time of year. This time of year we want the tree to root-in and start preparing for next spring.

If the roots are tightly tangled, you can cut or untangle them. This will help them spread out once in the ground. Making sure you are careful not to cut yourself, use a saw, sturdy knife, to make two cuts into the root ball.

One suggestion is to cut it into four slices like a pie.

If you can loosen individual roots with your fingers do so. If you can’t because the roots form too tight a mat then the cuts into the root ball will be enough.

Before lowering the tree or shrub into the planting hole, decide which side of the tree looks best and orient the tree or shrub so that side faces out, and then lower the plant into the hole.

Make sure the top of the root ball is even with soil line. Shovel the soil you dug out earlier back into hole. At this time, it is not recommended to amend the soil or add compost into the hole around the roots.

If we make the soil too nutrient rich the roots won’t want to spread beyond it and will grow in circles instead of out like a web. We want the tree to root itself or get a good anchor to keep it from becoming less stable and possibly causing the tree to lean or actually fall over.

Since this is fall, we do not want to fertilize the tree or shrub. We want to encourage root development not foliage growth. Save fertilization for the spring.

Pruning encourages new growth, which has the same detrimental effects in fall as fertilizer so leave that task for next year.

Some people like adding a rooting hormone, which encourages only roots to grow, not foliage and that is perfectly fine.

As you get the tree planting almost finished, press the soil down lightly, but do not stomp it down. You want air pockets so rain can get through and roots to grow.

Mulch around the planting hole. Two inches is plenty. You do not want to mound it up to look like a volcano. Keep the mulch from directly touching the trunk or stem.

Finally, a step sometimes forgotten or not thought about because it is getting colder is to water the newly planted tree or shrub. Water your newly planted tree or shrub 20 to 30 minutes a day until the ground freezes (generally early December).

Trees and shrubs like and require a good bit of water. Not watering them in properly is a big mistake, especially in fall when they really need to establish roots in a short time.

Keep in mind that not all trees and shrubs are suited for fall planting.

Do your homework and work closely with the nursery or garden center you are getting the tree or shrub from.

Tony Nye is the state coordinator for the Ohio State University Extension Small Farm Program and has been an OSU Extension Educator for agriculture and natural resources for over 30 years, currently serving Clinton County and the Miami Valley EERA.


Tony Nye

OSU Exension