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Purdue University
Consumer Horticulture

Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture

Fall Ideal for Planting Trees

by B. Rosie Lerner, Extension Consumer Horticulture Specialist

Because spring is the time for new growth, most people think of planting trees and shrubs then. But cool temperatures and adequate rainfall make fall a good time to plant as well. The soil may be warmer and less damp than in the spring, and you may have more time to get the job done in fall.

Fall-planted stock does demand extra attention. Plants may not have enough time to establish a good root system before winter hits. Cold winter winds and sunshine cause plants to lose water from their branches, and the roots must be able to replace that water if plants are to survive. Evergreens, particularly broad-leaved evergreens, are more susceptible to winter desiccation because their leaves have more surface from which to lose water than narrow-leaved evergreens and bare trees.

Select balled-and-burlapped or container-grown plants rather than bare-rooted stock. Bare-root plants should only be planted in late winter or early spring while the plants are still dormant.

Avoid planting large trees in fall. They can be risky to transplant in any season, but are particularly so when foliage is present. Leave the large trees to spring, and get a professional to do the moving. They have the proper equipment and expertise to help ensure a safe move.

Some species of plants do not adapt well to fall planting because they are unusually susceptible to winter damage. Magnolia, dogwood, tuliptree, sweet gum, red maple, birch, hawthorn, poplars, cherries, plum and many of the oaks are among the plants that are best saved for spring planting. However, you can often justify the risk by finding exceptional bargains in the fall. Many garden centers are motivated to sell the stock because of the expense of keeping the plants over winter.

Plant trees and shrubs early enough in the fall for the plant to develop a good root system. Soil temperatures should be well above 55 F at a depth of 6 inches at planting time. This condition usually exists until early to late October, depending on your location. Of course, weather conditions vary from year to year and with microclimates around the home landscape.

Water plants thoroughly when needed to supply about 1 inch of water per week. Continue watering until the ground is frozen, even after deciduous plants have lost their leaves. Wrap the trunks of thin-barked, young trees in late November to prevent frost cracks, sunscald, and animal damage, but be sure to remove the wrap in March.

Ground covers and shallow-rooted shrubs may be heaved out of the ground by alternate freezing and thawing of the soil that often occurs in winter. A 2-4 inch layer of mulch can help prevent wide soil temperature fluctuations. Apply materials such as compost, shredded bark or straw in late November or early December, after the plants are fully dormant and the soil is cold.

Last updated: 27 March 2006
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