Do It Yourself Fall Planting: A Short Course


By Ann Farnham, LLA

Why plant trees in the fall? Among the reasons, consider that fall temperatures are more moderate than summer, rainfall is steadier, and it is easier to work outside on the cooler days. The trees in question are less likely to go through heat or drought shock and will have an opportunity to establish some root growth before winter. Inventory at nurseries and garden centers might be reduced in price as the company will not want the expense of overwintering the stock (beware, however, that you do not buy the leftovers, less desirable plants from the earlier season!). In this area, plan to plant your tree from early September to, ideally, 6 weeks before the expected first heavy frost, around the end of October or early November.

Inform yourself thoroughly before buying your tree. Is the exposure (sun, shade, wind direction) of your chosen site correct for this plant? Are the soil type and pH what the plant requires? Concrete walls. patios, and walkways, for example, can make the soil pH more alkaline than the surrounding area. Most trees do well in a pH between 5.5 and 6.5; evergreens and broad-leaved evergreens prefer some acidity in the soil. Is the drainage adequate? Be sure to check this. Dig an 18” test hole to see how long it takes for water to drain out of it. If it takes more than over night, you will need professional help to improve the drainage.

Are there buried utilities in that spot? Walls and fences might create a microclimate which will be too warm for your plant of choice. The soil at this planting time should have a temperature over 55º at 6“ deep. Take a soil sample for analysis; our local extension service will do this. Be sure that your downspouts do not drain into the site and that there is adequate room for the mature tree. Check the tree for bugs, broken or diseased limbs, a dried-out root ball or container, or “wobble” from the root ball or container, which indicates stem breakage or damage. Is the tree “root bound”? That is, are the roots in the container so crowded –from being too long in that sized container- that they encircle the inside of the container? Do roots come out of the drainage holes? This condition requires extra measures or another plant.

Tree Planting Details

  1. Dig out the planting hole: The hole should be 2 x the width of the root ball and no deeper than its height. This is called “a dollar plant in a two-dollar hole”.
  2. Save the soil that you dig out to backfill the hole later. Break up the soil so that no clumps remain. Do not add peat moss, fertilizer, compost, etc. If you enrich the soil too much the roots will never venture outside of the hole. The nursery has added enough fertilizer for the season and you should not encourage new growth at this time. Add more topsoil only if the removed soil has a lot of rock or trash.
  3. Remove the container (it might need to be cut off) or remove the top half of the burlap if the tree is B&B (balled and burlapped). If the tree is in a wire container, cut off as much of the wire as possible once it is in the hole. Remove damaged or broken roots.
  4. Place the tree in the hole, making certain that it is straight and facing the direction you want. Fill the planting hole 3/4 full with the backfill, tamp it down, and then add water to eliminate air pockets. Fill to the top once the water has drained out, tamp, and water again. The soil should not be above the “flare” or area where the trunk rises from the root ball.
  5. Place a low, raised ring of soil around the planting hole which will help retain the water in the planting hole area so it can soak into the soil before it runs off.
  6. Cover the planted area with 2-3” of double shredded, hardwood bark mulch or pine needles. The mulch should be 2-3” from the trunk and not touch it. Mulch suppresses weeds, moderates temperature changes, and helps retain moisture in the soil.
  7. The modern best practice is to NOT stake or guy a tree unless it is in a very windy spot or on a slope. It needs some movement in order to develop a strong trunk.
  8. If the bark of the tree is thin and tender, such as that of a young maple, wrap it to the first branch with commercial tree wrap for the winter only. This is to prevent winter scorch or sun scald, especially on the south and southwest sides. If the wrap is left on in warm weather, insects will delight in the cozy spot between the wrap and the trunk. If there is a problem with mice, rabbits and/or deer chewing on the bark, a cylinder of plastic pipe will protect the trunk through the winter. Repellents are not always reliable. Remove the wrap in the spring for the same reason given above.
  9. Water the tree thoroughly, striving for an inch of water each week in the absence of adequate rain, until the ground freezes.
  10. Contrary to old practices, do not prune back the tree. Prune out only broken, crossing, or diseased branches.
  11. In the spring, provide the tree with a water-filled “Gator Bag” or a drip watering system. Standing there with a hose usually does not do the job.


THE FOLLOWING TREES are considered “Fall Digging Hazards” and no responsibility will be assumed by most nurseries for their survival if dug from the nursery in the fall.

American Sweetgum (Liquidambar)
Leyland Cypress (Cupressocyporis leylandii)
Birch varieties (Betula)
Mountainash (Sorbus)
Cherry (Prunus)
Oaks (except Pin Oak) (Quercus)
Pear (Pyrus)
Silver Linden varieties (Tilia tomentosa)
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Sour Gum (Nyssa)
Elm varieties (Ulmus parvifolia)
Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum)
Hawthorn varieties (Crataegus)
Tulip Tree (Liriodendron)
Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodara)
Weeping Willow (Salix)
Holly: Foster, ‘Nellie Stevens’, Greenleaf American  (Ilex)
Zelkova varieties