BRATTLEBORO—The question I am most frequently asked this time of year is, “Can I still plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in the fall?”
The answer is a resounding “Yes!”
While the air is becoming cooler, the ground is still retaining warmth from summer. We also typically experience abundant rainfall in fall. For these reasons, things we plant now make vigorous root growth and get established quickly.
It is also a time of year that you can often find many nurseries offering sale prices on much of their stock. Plant now, save money, and your trees, shrubs, and perennials will already be established for spring enjoyment.
Procedures for planting in fall are the same as planting in spring or summer.
1. Dig a hole about twice the size of the root ball, add a bit of good compost to the bottom of the hole, and place the plant so that it will be at the same depth as it was in the pot.
I like to mix the existing soil half and half with good compost, but if your soil is poor, add mostly compost into your mix. This method creates a small area of richer soil that will help the plant get established. The plant will adapt to the soil around it in time. Loosen the roots of the plant if they are at all compacted.
2. Set the plant in the hole, fill in the hole with your soil and tamp down gently. Packing the soil too hard can cause a density that new roots might find difficult. Temporarily leave a small well around the plant to allow for water to reach the roots of the plant easily. You can create a mound like a donut around your planted area which will also help retain water.
3. After planting, water it well, making sure that the water seeps down to saturate all the roots and to settle the soil around the roots. Most plants require an inch of rain per week. If rainfall is not sufficient, you will need to supplement water to that amount, especially in the first two weeks after planting. It’s a good idea to keep the plant well watered until the ground freezes.
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I usually don’t fertilize when planting in fall because I want the plant to focus on root establishment, and not on leaf growth. Feeding can be done in the spring. The compost that you put in the hole will feed sufficiently for now.
If you are planting deciduous trees or shrubs, or perennials, all you need to do for winter protection is to mulch the plant. Many people use bark mulch for looks and protection. An inch layer of compost also works nicely. White pine branches make good protection for perennial beds, since they are readily available and trap air under them which works as an insulator under snow cover.
If you have planted evergreen shrubs such as rhododendrons, evergreen azaleas, pieris (andromeda), mountain laurel or boxwood, it’s a good idea to give the leaves some protection from burning or drying out in the winter.
I use Wilt-Pruf, which is made from pine resin and provides a clear protective coating that wears off by spring. This product should be sprayed onto the plant after hard frost; a warmish day toward the end of November is good. It’s important that you avoid spraying the plant while it’s still in active growth. Similar products are available under different names.
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I am also often asked, “How late is too late to plant?” Remember that frost above ground does not always mean that the ground is yet freezing up. While the ground is still pliable, roots can still grow.
My rule of thumb is to allow a minimum of two weeks of growing time before the ground freezes. So you have to keep an eye on the weather and see what works for your area.
I am finding that, for the last 10 years, the planting season has gotten significantly later most years. I used to stop planting by the end of October, but I am finding that I can often plant safely until the end of November, depending on the weather.
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If you have planted trees that may be exposed to winter wind, it’s not a bad idea to stake the tree. Constant winds can keep moving the tree, making it hard for it to establish roots. Staking kits can be found at most nurseries or hardware stores.
Three stakes are usually sufficient to stabilize a tree. Any rope that goes around a tree trunk should be padded to protect the bark.
Another bit of protection for fruit trees (including ornamental crabapples) is to wrap the trunk to protect it from creatures such as mice or voles that may gnaw the bark either by wrapping it with the corrugated paper wrap available for that purpose, or with a reusable plastic spiral wrap. I prefer the ones with holes in them to assure sufficient air circulation over the winter.