Planting Trees Best Done in the Fall

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Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

Looking at the weather outside, we are definitively still in a fall season and winter is nowhere to be seen. My ten-day weather forecast shows a low of 42 for the Lufkin area early in the week of Thanksgiving.

If you are looking to plant trees or shrubs, fall is undoubtedly our best time to plant. When planted in the fall, trees and shrubs are given as much time as possible to get established before our typically hot, dry summers. Research trials and worlds of experience have proven this many times.

Years ago, I was visiting with a local landscape retailer and he told me that he planted year-round to stay in business. You can do that if you take great care of a newly planted perennial during the frequent summer droughts. More recently, I was in visiting with a local grower that stated he preferred folks wait until February to plant. Upon further questioning, he preferred that because that’s when his new tree crop was prepared for sale!

So, while you can wait as some do until spring when the gardening fever, establishing woody plants long before they reach our difficult summer season is by far a better bet.

Regardless of when you plant, determine your soil’s drainage and adaptability to the tree you wish to plant. Poor draining soils where water can stand will not be a good choice to plant most fruit trees such as peach, pears, figs, and pecans.

You can test your soil’s drainage with a simple percolation test. Dig a hole 1 foot deep, fill with water, and see how long it takes to empty. If the water level drops more slowly than 1 inch per hour, drainage is poor.

Always check for underground utilities before digging. One phone call to 811 from anywhere in Texas will route your call to a state service which will alert homeowners of underground pipelines, phone lines, water/sewer, and power lines. Local utility technicians will mark your property with flags within two full business days of the request. There is no charge to you for this service and folks are often surprised to find out where buried utilities are and are not located on their property.

Don’t plant anything that will get over 15 feet tall under a powerline. Moving away from powerlines makes it a safer tree that will look better in its natural form.

Start the planting process by clearing vegetation and mulch from the site at least six inches beyond the proposed hole or bed. Research as shown that removing up vegetation and mulching up to three feet from the trunk will double the rate of growth. More importantly, this keeps weed-eaters and mower-decks away from harming young, tender tree trunks.

For normal planting in well-drained soil, the hole for an individual plant should be at least one-and-a-half to two times the width of the root ball and only as deep as the root ball or soil mass. Look carefully for the soil line in which the tree originally grew. Discoloration on the bark near ground level of bare-root plants indicates the soil level.

Do not dig the hole deeper than the root ball. Digging a hole too deep can cause the plant to settle deeper than what it wants to best grow. If the top of the root ball is set below the surface of surrounding soil, even by only three inches, water can collect in the planting hole, resulting in a lack of oxygen to the roots.

In poorly drained or compacted soil, make the hole three to four times the width of the root ball and not quite as deep as the root ball.

Amending the backfill when planting trees and shrubs has been debated for decades. In all but exceptional circumstances where the soil is very poor, extensive research has shown no need to incorporate any amendments, fertilizers, living organisms, water-holding gels, humic acids, or organic products into the backfill soil. Simply use the loosened soil that came out of the planting hole. Loosen and break up large clods of soil and remove large rocks before backfilling.

The exception to not adding backfill amendments is where existing soil is so poor that all soil in the area needs to be replaced with good quality soil. Incorporation of organic matter when planting in very sandy or gravelly soils will also increase the water-holding capacity.

The last two steps after planting is to water the tree in well and add mulch. There are countless air-pockets in the ground that will dry out roots. A good soaking will eliminate them and get the tree of to a great start. Adding an organic mulch at a depth of no more than three inches (when settled) at a large diameter will greatly aid the tree’s establishment.

Looking at the calendar, you have several months before we experience our typical hot, dry summer. Get new trees and shrubs in the ground as soon as possible for best success.

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