By Lee Reich
For The Associated Press
Fall planting of trees and shrubs might go against your grain.
Fall is when you probably feel like closing down the garden, gathering the final harvests and snuggling plants in for the cold months ahead. Spring is when the urge to plant becomes irresistible, when most of us want to contribute to the symphony of colors and scents of the season.
In fact, though, fall is in many ways a better time for planting from the point of view of a tree or shrub.
Many nurseries dig bare root plants in the fall, then sell some and store the remainder through winter. Such plants are, obviously, fresher in the fall.
Perhaps most important, fall planting allows trees and shrubs time to establish themselves before winter cold settles into the soil. Roots begin growing as soon as they touch moist earth, and continue to do so as long as the soil temperature stays above about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Not so for stems. Short days and nippy temperatures at the end of the growing season bring stem growth to a halt, and growth can’t begin again until lengthening days or a sufficient duration of cold signals to dormant buds that winter is truly over. Growth is then ready to begin as soon as temperatures warm.
Any fall-planted tree or shrub is already in place, its roots growing in the soil, when the first warm breaths of spring coax stems to begin growing. If you plant in spring, though, root growth is only just beginning when stems begin growing. Or worse. Stems sometimes begin growing before the plant is even in the ground — a real problem with bare root nursery stock.
Even the ground is usually in better condition for digging in fall than in spring. Summer’s warmth still lingers in the soil, long enough to keep it moist — not sodden — and crumbly for much of the time, just right for digging planting holes.
Contrast this with the slurpy, cold condition of the soil in spring. Digging a soil that is sodden ruins its structure, driving out the air, so one frustration of spring planting is waiting for the soil to dry out somewhat, all the while watching plant buds beginning to expand and grow.
Frustration doubles when, after waiting for the soil to dry enough to plant, you have to immediately begin a regimen of weekly watering. One thorough soaking is usually all that fall-planted trees and shrubs need; winter rain and snow take care of the rest until later in spring.
A few precautions are needed with fall planting. Roots begin growth in fall, but not enough to anchor a plant against shifting, even being lifted, where the soil will be alternately freezing and thawing in the months to come. Prevent plant heaving by insulating the soil with a thick blanket of some organic mulch, such as leaves or straw, which will stop those wide swings in temperature. Avoid rot by piling the material up to but not right against the stems.
That mulch does make a cozy winter home for bark-feeding rodents. So protect the trunks with a cylinder of quarter-inch mesh hardware cloth, or wrap them with paper or plastic wraps sold for this purpose. Trunk wraps make great homes for insects in summer — homes where bugs can hide from hungry birds — so remove the wraps in spring.
Despite the benefits of fall planting, it is not for every kind of bare root tree or shrub. Among the few plants that do not take kindly to fall planting are red maple, birch, hawthorn, tuliptree, poplar, oak, willow, plum and cherry. However, potted plants of any of these species will benefit from fall planting just as other species do.
With these cautions and constraints, go ahead and plan for fall planting. In contrast to planting in spring, when stem growth threatens and you’re distracted by colorful flowers after winter’s browns and grays, fall planting can proceed with a leisurely pace and a rational mind.