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Time to plant treesTime to plant trees

Tree Talk: Fall is prime time for getting new trees in the ground. Here’s a look at what to plant and how to plant it.

Fredric Miller

September 11, 2020

4 Min Read
sun shining through green forest
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As we begin to move into fall, now is a good time to consider planting trees. As we’ve noted before, the summer of 2020 was tough for trees. You may have had some trees decline to the point where they may not recover, and others already may have succumbed to the harsh summer. Either way, you may want to replace those trees with new ones.

So, why is fall a better time to plant than spring? Either time is fine, but here are some good reasons for fall versus spring:

  • Flexibility is greater in the fall.

  • Fall gives the tree more time to get settled into its new environment and regenerate new roots.

  • The tree will usually experience less transplant shock in the fall because of cooler temperatures, no leaves to support, no pests and diseases to content with, and more consistent rainfall.

  • When spring rolls around, the tree will already be in place and prepared to start growing.

If you choose to plant a ball and burlap (B&B) tree, make sure the root ball is in good condition, is moist and is the proper size. Standard nursery practices require 10 to 12 inches of root ball diameter per 1 inch of tree caliper, so a 2-inch caliper tree should have a 20- to 24-inch root ball diameter.

Trees grown in containers will be lighter in weight and have more roots, but they will need more consistent watering because there is less room for water storage in the root ball compared to a B&B tree.

Also, bigger is not better. A smaller tree will have a better survival rate than a large tree and will generally catch up in growth. Additionally, if you plant a B&B tree, focus on helping the tree regenerate its root system. A B&B tree will lose about 80% of its root system when it is dug in the nursery, so your initial efforts should be to regenerate root growth, not top growth.

A good rule of thumb is it takes about one year for each 1 inch of caliper for a tree to grow new roots, so for a 2-inch tree, it will take about two growing seasons before the tree has regenerated the roots it lost when it was dug. Once the roots have been regenerated, then you can add fertilizer.

As always, keep the tree well-watered during dry spells, mulch the area around the tree, and protect it from pests and diseases until the tree is established.

Choose trees wisely

What to plant? Here are a few points to consider:

1. Choose the proper plant for the proper site. Soil type is extremely important and will determine the longevity and vitality of the tree. Do not plant an upland species such as oaks, hickories, walnuts, sugar maples or conifers on heavy clay and poorly drained soils. Likewise, do not plant water-loving species such as silver maple, willow and cottonwood on droughty or sandy soils.

2. Remember species diversity. It is always tempting to replace the lost tree with the same species because you love its fall color, spring blooms or other ornamental characteristics, but try to select a different species that can give you the same effect.

3. Consider mature size. One common problem is planting trees too close to structures or in a confined space. This creates problems and usually requires excessive pruning and shaping to keep the tree in bounds, which may even ruin the desired shape of the tree. If you’re not familiar with the growth habits of a particular species, then visit an arboretum or take a walk in the woods and observe the tree in its natural habitat.

4. Think tree maintenance, and pest and disease problems. Ask yourself: How often will I have to prune the tree? Is the tree going to be chronically infected with a foliar disease or be defoliated by an insect, like Japanese beetles feeding on little leaf linden? If so, you might want to consider planting a more resistant species or a different species that is not as susceptible to pests and diseases. This will help ensure the tree will thrive and be healthy, save you money and time in having to treat the trees on a regular basis, and help you maximize the desired ornamental qualities.

5. Consider the tree’s job. What function do you want the tree to provide? Is it for shade, privacy, wind or noise abatement, aesthetic appeal, or something else? Choose accordingly.

For more details on proper tree planting and tree selection, consult your local county Extension office, a certified arborist, local nursery or garden center, or email [email protected]; or visit The Morton Arboretum website.

Miller is a horticulture professor at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill., and a senior research scientist in entomology at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. Email your tree questions to him at [email protected]. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.

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