Many people think of spring as the best time to plant. They cite dependable spring rains and the long growing season that lies ahead. But, here in the Midwest, those spring rains can turn to flooding, or at the least, soggy planting sites. And as we experienced this year, the long growing season can turn to a prolonged drought that challenges even established plantings. For these reasons and more, fall has been discovered as a great time to plant all kinds of things from turf grass to perennials to trees and shrubs.
Why is fall so great for planting? Because the season itself contains all the ingredients for successful planting. Fall's still warm soil encourages root growth so the roots of a fall planting continue to grow through the winter until the ground freezes. When the winter is mild, those roots may keep on developing when soil temperature is as low as 40 degrees. And this growth occurs during a time when roots don't have to support growing stems and new leaves. Then, in early spring, root growth accelerates and top growth begins. The same planting in spring gets a slower start due to cool soil temperature. By summer, the fall planting is well-established and has a root system that is better equipped to handle heat, drought and other challenges of the critical first year. And if that's not enough for you, consider fall's characteristic rainfall, fewer pest and disease problems, nursery end-of-season sales and the crisp days just begging you to come outside and play.
Now that you're ready to get planting, let's talk about what species are best. There is a commonly-held belief that plants with shallower and/or more fibrous roots can be planted more successfully in fall than those with fewer, larger roots. Examples of species that are more difficult to plant in fall include Magnolia, Tulip Poplar, American Hornbeam, Sweetgum, oaks and Bald Cypress. Tree species that establish easily in fall include maples, Ohio Buckeye, Black Alder, hawthorns, ashes and American Sycamore. Deciduous trees also have a slight advantage over evergreens which hold their leaves or needles through drying winter winds and cold temperatures. Native species, of course, are your overall best bet since they've evolved over thousands of years to thrive in our climate.
When you select specimens for purchase, remember size does matter. Not the height or caliper, but root mass. Trees, shrubs and plants with air-prune method (APM) developed root systems have root masses equivalent to an older specimen. When planted, the APM plant will take off, growing out its above ground structure to compensate for its massive root system. A three to five gallon APM-grown tree will easily catch up with a balled-and-burlapped tree of 1 ½" caliper within its first growing season.
The ideal period to plant is from early fall until about six weeks before the first hard frost, typically the end of October or mid-November. To plant correctly, dig your planting hole no deeper than the depth of the root ball or container and three to four times as wide. In fact, it's even better to dig the planting hole two or three inches shallower than the depth of the root ball. The idea is to prevent the new planting from settling. If a tree's root ball sinks below ground level, it means almost certain death to the tree. Remember to follow the established rules to use a quality, slow-release fertilizer to minimize transplant shock, keep plantings watered during dry spellseven during the winter--and stake larger specimens.
Think of it. Ease of establishment, accelerated growth for next year and increased savings for your landscaping budget. Planting in fall is a beautiful thing.