When Is the Best Time to Plant Trees and Shrubs?

— Written By and last updated by Cindy Nance

Fall is a great time to add trees and shrubs to your landscape! Cooler temperatures help fall planted plants establish more successfully than those planted during the spring and summer. When choosing new plants for your landscape, consider your growing conditions to find plants naturally adapted to your landscape conditions. Amend planting beds well with compost for best results.

Though many people think of spring as the gardening season, in the Southeast fall is actually the preferred time for planting most landscape plants. During fall, cooler temperatures and lower humidity not only makes being outdoors more pleasant for people but also reduces stress on new plantings, making it more likely they will establish successfully and thrive in the future. Planting trees, shrubs and perennials in the fall between the beginning of September and the end of December allows them to grow roots now, so when spring arrives they are well established and ready to get growing. Larger root systems help fall planted plants perform better during summer than those planted in spring.

It is important to know your site conditions. Whether you are just beginning your landscape this fall or adding to an already established yard, remember that great gardens don’t just happen, they develop through careful planning. Before purchasing plants, take notice of your growing conditions. Do you have sun or shade? If you only have shade part of the day, which part is it, morning or afternoon? Many plants that prefer full shade will be fine if they only get morning sun, which is much gentler than afternoon sun. On the other hand, areas that receive morning shade but full afternoon sun should be planted with full sun plants. Also consider your soil. Is it mostly sand or clay, or a mixture of both? Does water drain away quickly or slowly after a storm? Have you had your soil tested within the last three years? If not, early fall is the perfect time to submit a soil sample for testing, before the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s soil testing labs become overwhelmed with farm samples. Having your soil tested by the Department of Agriculture is the only accurate way to know which nutrients your soil needs and is completely free. Soil test results will tell you your soil’s pH (the measure of how acidic or basic your soil is), which will help you choose plants that will be happy in your soil conditions. The results will also let you know what type of nutrients your soil needs to support healthy plant growth. Soil testing supplies are available from any North Carolina Cooperative Extension office.

Knowing your growing conditions will help you choose plants that will thrive in your landscape with minimal care. Even so, most plants will grow even better if you improve your soil by adding composted organic matter. Just adding a small amount of compost to the planting hole does not really help though. To really give plants a boost, plant in beds that have been well amended by spreading three to four inches of compost over the top of the soil then tilled into the soil as deeply as possible. What type of organic matter you use is not that important as long as it has been composted. Compost you make at home is just as good as compost purchased from garden centers or in bulk. A common type of soil amendment available in this area is made from composted turkey litter, which is readily available due to the large concentration of turkeys produced in southeastern North Carolina. Peat moss is also commonly available as a soil amendment, but its usefulness is limited. Peat moss has no nutrients and does not help soil hold nutrients the way compost will. The only thing peat moss will help soil hold is water. This makes it a good amendment for extremely sandy soils, when applied along with compost, but peat moss should not be added to clay soils or soils that do not drain well. In areas with poor drainage, you should either create raised planting beds or amend the soil with compost and choose plants that tolerate wet conditions.

Most plants that die within a few months of being planted do so because they were not planted properly or because they were not watered correctly. In fact, it is rare for a tree or shrub to die from insect or disease problems within the first year of planting. Planting in fall will help improve your chances of transplant success, as will knowing the right way to plant and water. Planting too deep is a common mistake. Trees and shrubs planted too deep may die quickly or may linger for several seasons, but never really thrive. Trees and shrubs should never be planted any deeper than they were growing in their container. When digging a hole to plant any type of woody plant, make sure to dig no deeper than the depth of the root ball. Dig the hole wide enough for the plant’s root ball and still have plenty of room to gently fill the soil back in around the root ball. Inspect the root ball before placing it into the hole. Cut any circling roots to encourage them to grow out into the soil. Do not pack soil back around new plants. Instead, after planting, water in newly planted trees and shrubs to settle the soil around them. New plantings will need to continue to be watered frequently for the first several weeks after they are planted, especially in sandy soils. Soaker hoses are excellent for watering new plantings because they apply water slowly at soil level, minimizing the amount of water lost through evaporation. Make sure to have the soaker hose very close to the base of newly planted plants to make sure their roots balls are receiving moisture. A three to four inch layer of mulch will help conserve moisture and reduce weed growth around new plantings. Apply mulch evenly over the planting bed but not up against the trunks of trees and shrubs.

Reminder:  A growing program this year is the “Sampson County Friends of Horticulture.” This program offers monthly “How To” Horticultural Seminars. Please call (910) 592-7161 for more information. Please call the Sampson County Cooperative Extension Center at (910) 592-7161 with your horticultural questions and to register for any upcoming events. Be sure to check out the Ask An Expert Widget at sampson.ces.ncsu.edu for any questions you may have.