Planting trees in your garden or yard is a great way to add shade, cover, wind protection, and a great aesthetic element to your exterior home design. But trees can be expensive, and you want your new tree to have the best chance at survival and successful growth possible. Planting your tree properly, and doing so at the right time of year, will give it the best chance at a long and successful life. But is it better to plant a tree in the spring or in the fall?
This question is hotly debated among garden experts, but the answer is actually that both have certain advantages and disadvantages! Let’s take a look at both in detail below, and then move on to the Best of Tools guide to how and when to plant a tree for the best results.
Planting trees in spring vs. in fall
Planting trees in spring has certain advantages, but so does planting in fall. These are very different advantages, and which season you choose should primarily be determined by whether you would prefer to focus on strong growth or on finding the perfect tree.
Planting a tree in the fall is a great choice, as this season allows your tree to put its energy into growing a strong and healthy root system, rather than wasting energy on leaves, and get properly established before winter comes. That is a great way to ensure that your tree gets itself as well established as possible for the best possible chance of surviving the winter successfully.
Planting a tree in the spring may not allow the tree to focus on rooting in the same way, but it allows more time for the tree to get established before the winter comes. The significant advantage of this season, though, is that of choice. If you are buying a tree from a major retailer, you are likely to have the best selection available in the spring.
While there might be discounts on offer in the fall, the trees available are likely to be the unwanted leftovers and generally lower quality than you might be able to get hold of in the spring. The selection is also likely to be more limited, giving you less choice and less control over which tree you end up with.
Assessing your yard and researching
A great starting point when you are preparing to plant a tree is to take a soil sample and send it to your state’s land grant university extension office. For a fee that usually comes in somewhere between $20 and $40, they will be able to tell you the nutrient balance of your soil, and therefore what types of the tree will be best suited for growing there.
The other part of assessing your yard properly is to check the soil depth in your chosen tree planting location. Dig down at least two feet to verify that it’s all clear soil down to that depth, without layers of clay or gravel. If you find either of these, you will need to replace them with fresh soil and compost in order to allow your tree to grow properly and securely.
If you are planting near the street or in your front yard, you run the risk of digging into water pipes or electrical cables. That means that you are going to need to get your utilities marked out in advance in order to avoid damaging them by accident. Call 811 at least three days before you plant in order to ensure that utility marking crews have plenty of time to mark out all the potential hazards in the area!
Preparing and planting
Once you’ve picked out a tree to plant, it’s time to prepare for planting it. Measure the diameter of your tree’s root ball, and then rototill a circle approximately five times the diameter of the root ball. This will give a suitably large amount of space for the roots to grow. Then, dig a dish-shaped hole in the center of this, with a diameter around twice that of the root ball and a depth that allows only the tree’s root flare to poke out above the ground. If there is burlap wrapped around the root ball, unwrap that and dispose of it (or just leave it in the hole after unwrapping it).
Place the tree gently into the center of the hole. Make sure it’s positioned vertically and securely and gently backfill the rest of the planting hole. Compact the soil enough to hold the tree firmly in place, but not so much that it becomes problematically solid, and water the tree generously. Then, spread about two or three inches of mulch over the top, leaving the root flare exposed. Once you’re done, the soil should feel damp but not wet and muddy. If you think it’s too dry, add more water until it feels moist.
Looking after a new tree
One of the most common mistakes that inexperienced gardeners often make when planting trees is to overwater their new trees. That’s a sure-fire way of killing a tree – they can drown, just like people can! If you add too much water, then the roots of the tree can take in water but have no access to air, which kills the tree.
To avoid drowning your new tree, a good rule of thumb is to water it according to its size. Set your garden hose to a slow trickle and place it over the planting spot. Leave it there for ten minutes for every inch of the tree trunk’s diameter. For a new sapling, that’s likely to be around twenty minutes in most cases. If you’re planting a coniferous tree, then give it ten minutes of water for every foot of height instead.
Start by watering your new tree once a week, and then after a while, adjust this depending on what the soil is like. Clay heavy soils drain slowly and therefore need watering less often. Sandy soils, however, drain quickly and may want watering more often than once a week. If the soil seems actively wet, you’re watering too much. If it seems completely dry, then you need to water more!