Garden Variety: Fall is a great time to plant a tree — here are some tips

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As the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago; the second-best time is today. This is true even in the fall. In regions with four seasons, many tree species have better success rates when transplanted in the fall or winter rather than spring. Plant trees now, or spend this winter selecting a site and variety. If you lack the space, tools or know-how for tree planting, seek out a volunteer planting event or team up with a community organization.

There are a couple of ways to approach tree planting. The first is to throw caution to the wind, head to the nearest garden center, pick out something that looks nice, bring it home and find a spot for it. The opposite end of the spectrum is to select a site, think about end goals (shade, fruit, etc.), then research the best type of tree for the location. Careful planning and selection will give your tree the best chances for long-term survival, but it can also be a hangup that prevents the actual planting from happening. The practical approach for most people is somewhere in the middle — thinking about site, end goals and availability of the species together without getting hung up on the “perfect” tree.

Other considerations are planting methods and how the tree will be transported — bareroot, potted, balled and burlapped, etc.

Bareroot trees are, as the name suggests, trees with roots that are bare from soil or potting media. Fruit trees are commonly transplanted this way, but seedling landscape trees are moved bareroot also, especially through conservation nurseries such as the one run by the Kansas Forest Service. Bareroot plantings are a great way to plant many trees at one time with minimal effort.

Container trees are potted in plastic containers, felt or fabric bags or something similar. These are most common at garden centers and are easy to carry and move. With rigid containers, there are risks of roots wrapping around in circles to the point of cutting off water movement on the base of the tree. To alleviate issues with potted trees, wash the soil from the roots at planting time, cut any roots that encircle the trunk and tease the roots apart as much as possible.

Balled and burlapped (B&B) trees are dug in nurseries using a special tool called a tree spade. The chunk of dirt and roots, called the “root ball,” is wrapped in burlap and a special wire basket or cage. B&B trees are less likely to have girdling roots than potted trees, but the best way to confirm tree root health is to wash soil from the roots as described above. B&B trees are the most common choice for landscapers but may be difficult for the average person to move and plant.

Trees are sometimes transplanted directly with a tree spade. This is most common when moving very large trees for an instant landscape, or when moving trees on the same property. There are specialty companies that operate tree spades without doing other landscape work, and some landscaping companies may operate and offer spading services.

With all the methods described above, try to place the crown of the tree slightly above the surface of the surrounding soil at planting. Water the tree well at planting. Mulch around the tree, making a mulch ring that’s shaped like a doughnut, not a volcano, or remove grass and other vegetation in a circle around the base of the tree to reduce competition for water and nutrients. Water deeply and infrequently as needed until the tree is established.

If the tree is staked at planting, be sure to remove the stakes and wraps from the tree’s trunk within a year to keep the tree from growing into the bands.

If you can plant more than one tree, seek out different types. Diversity improves the likelihood that some trees will survive if a pest wipes out a species at some point in the future, or if site conditions change. Dutch elm disease and emerald ash borer, exotic pests that destroyed entire forests in some parts of the U.S., are examples of why species diversity is important for the longevity of trees in general.


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