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Planting Fall Trees

Many home gardeners think spring is the only time to plant landscape material. However, early fall planting from mid-August to mid-October is an excellent time to plant trees and shrubs because soil temperatures are consistent and (hopefully) moisture conditions are such that good root growth occurs before winter sets in. But for fall planting it’s key to pick healthy plants and avoid those that are slow growers, which are better left for spring planting.

Early fall temperatures offer newly planted trees consistent warm daytime temperatures with cooler temps at night. But don’t plant too late because trees won’t have time to establish a solid root system before winter.

Container grown and burlapped deciduous trees are good choices since they already have a good root system developed. Evergreens prefer an earlier start like Mid-August into September because they prefer warmer soil temperatures.

You need to consider several things before adding trees and shrubs to your landscape. Consider the site first. Most important is what type of soil do you have? Does it drain well or is it wet? Is it sandy or “clayey”? Sandy soil usually drains well, clay soil will not, depleting the oxygen to roots. Ideally, have a soil test done to really understanding your growing conditions. How much wind does the spot receive? Is it on the north or south side of your home? How much sunlight, all day or is there some shade? Make a list of your conditions and choose landscape material to match your site. There are lots of varieties of trees and shrubs to select that will thrive in certain conditions so choosing the right plant for the right place in your landscape is important. Do your homework first and visit a good garden center or nursery for more guidance.

Nurseries and garden centers will often offer several ways to buy trees and shrubs. There are some that should only be planted in spring, such as Bare Root, Packaged (bare root in moist material), and Field Potted which are dug with a ball of field soil in the spring.

For fall planting choose Containerized trees and shrubs that already have a good root system, Container Grown, or Balled and Burlapped. Always lift and transport trees and shrubs from the bottom, never lift from the stem.

For fall planting success, site prep, care and maintenance is critical. The hole for your new tree or shrub should be at least one to two feet wider than the root system. Make sure to loosen the sides of the hole so roots can penetrate the soil. Planting depth is more important, plant trees and shrubs at the same depth as they are planted in their containers. Remove the container; loosen roots, making sure no roots are growing in a circle. If container trees are really root-bound, make shallow vertical cuts on the sides of the root ball to break up the net of roots. Plant Balled and Burlapped trees with about two to three inches of the rootball above ground level; which allows for some settling. Remove all the twine from the trunk, cut the wires and remove the basket and cut away burlap trying to keep the rootball intact. If burlap remains above the soil level it can become a wick, drying the rootball. Water thoroughly during backfilling to remove any air pockets.

New trees and shrubs will need routine watering, typically several gallons a week depending on weather conditions. Watering with a slow drip at the base of the tree is preferable since water needs time to soak into the roots. Mulch should also be added at the base of the tree or shrub several inches thick and spread out a few feet. Make sure mulch doesn’t come in contact with the actual tree trunk.

New trees shouldn’t need pruning but if limbs are damaged in transit, remove those after planting. Staking isn’t needed unless a new tree is damaged in a wind storm. Trees develop better trunks when they can move with the breeze.

For winter prep and success with fall planted trees water regularly until the ground freezes. Wrap young trees with tree-wrap from the bottom up to the first major branch to help eliminate winter sunscald. Protective fencing may need to be used the first year or two around new trees to protect them from rabbit and deer winter damage.

For lists of suggested tree varieties along with lots of general tree information for Iowa visit the Iowa State Extension Forestry website at And a final note: Iowa law requires everyone to locate underground utilities before digging so make sure you dial 811 before you dig!

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