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Fall is a good time for planting woody plants

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By Dennis Morgeson

Fall is a good time to plant trees and shrubs. The cool temperatures and adequate rainfall (most years) make for an ideal time for planting woody plants. In the spring, many times it is too wet and the soil too cool to get newly planted trees and shrubs off to a good start.  Many times gardeners are much too busy to plant in the early spring as well.

Woody plants planted in the fall do require a little extra attention. Some plants may not have time to establish a good root system before winter. Cold winter temperatures especially winds can dry stems and shoots out if the plants don’t have an adequate root system in place to take up water. Believe it or not, plants do take up water during the winter. They are doing all their plant functions, except photosynthesis and shoot growth.  The roots continue to grow and take up water and nutrients in the winter. Take great care when planting evergreens during the fall. These plants are holding an entire leaf load and they have to take up enough water to keep them from drying out and dying. Evergreens will require much more water during the winter than a deciduous plant and will have to have a large enough root system to take up enough water.

When planting in the fall, select containerized, balled and bur lapped plants. Bare root plants have much less root system in tact than the containerized and balled plants. You should wait to plant bare root plants in late winter or early spring before new growth begins.

Most species of woody plants will flourish from fall planting, however there are some species that don’t do as well because they are more susceptible to winter injury. Magnolia, dogwood, tulip tree, sweet gum, red maple, birch, hawthorn, poplars, cherries, plums, and many oaks do not do as well when planted in the fall. However, if you find bargains in the fall, it is definitely worth the risk to plant them then. Most times there won’t be any problems.

When planting in the fall it is generally all right to plant as long as the soil temperatures are above 55 degrees, six inches down. In most years this will continue into mid October or later.

The most common mistake when planting trees and shrubs is inadequate water. Newly planted, as well as established plants, need at least one inch of water per week. Newly planted trees and shrubs should continue to be watered until the ground is frozen. This means you should water deciduous plants even after their leaves have fallen.

It’s a good idea to wrap the trunks of newly planted or young trees with a tree wrap in late November. This will prevent sun scaled to the trunks and rodent damage. During the winter the sun can heat parts of the trunk above freezing.

When the sun goes down the temperatures drop quickly which in turn allows the desensitized trunk portion to freeze.  This area will die leaving a wound that will develop later. During the winter when food is scarce, rodents will actually chew on the bark of young trees and shrubs. These wounds will weaken the plant and can actually kill it if the rodents girdle the trunk. Also, be sure to take the wrap off in the spring. If you leave it on, it can create a breeding ground for insects and diseases.

Newly planted, as well as established plants, will benefit from a two-four inch layer of mulch. Mulch not only conserves moisture, but insulates the soil and roots from wide fluctuations in temperatures. Mulch can actually reduce the amount of heaving of newly planted trees and shrubs from the soil freezing and thawing several times during the winter. However don’t apply these materials in the fall until late November. You want to make sure the soil has cooled properly before applying mulch. If you apply mulch too early, it can keep the soil warm and make your plants susceptible to winter injury.

Fall is the time to fertilize woody plants and turf as well, however it is too early. I will remind you later in the season and with tips on how much and how often in October or November.

This Thursday evening at 6 p.m at the Washington County Extension office Dr. Krista Jacobsen, Soil Ecologist from UK, is going to teach us all how to build healthy fertile soil. I hope you all can join us!

Happy gardening!