If you’ve lost trees to the drought or one of our other weather spectaculars or disease, or you just want to help rebuild the canopy we’re collectively losing, fall is a great time to replant many types of trees.
“The nights are cool, and the soil is warm,” said Jason Griffin, director of the K-State horticulture research center in Haysville.
As of this weekend, the nights are cold, and tender plants should be covered or brought into the garage till the cold spell passes. While the days still hold onto warmth, make the rounds of existing trees to make sure they’re watered well going into winter. Use a dowel to make sure they’re watered at least 10 inches down, Ward Upham of K-State said. You may need to water on warm days in winter, too, if it’s dry.
Most trees do better planted in the fall than in the spring – fall root growth gives them a head start on getting established, helping them withstand the stresses of next summer, Upham said. But it’s better to wait until spring to plant trees that don’t experience appreciable root growth in fall, he said. Those include beech, birch, redbud, magnolia, tulip poplar, willow oak, scarlet oak, black oak, willow and dogwood.
It also may be a good idea at this point to wait until spring to plant evergreens. They need at least six weeks before the ground freezes for their roots to become established, Upham said. While I certainly hope we’re well within that window, evergreens need to be watered through a dry winter even more than trees that lose their leaves do, so if we have another mild winter that also is dry, the evergreens could be at risk.
The main reason I like to plant trees in the fall is that they’re around to look at during the winter. This is the same reason we don’t cut down ornamental grasses or the interesting seed heads of perennials until early spring.
Fall-planted trees require some special care, Upham said. “Roots are actively growing even though the top is dormant. Make sure the soil stays moist but not soggy. This may require watering not only in the fall but also during the winter if we experience warm spells that dry the soil. Mulch minimizes moisture loss and slows the cooling of the soil so root growth continues as long as possible.”
I asked Griffin to give us the latest guidelines on planting trees. Here are the updated how-tos:
How to plant a tree
1. Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball and no deeper than the root ball.
2. If the tree is in a container, free the tree from the container by pushing in on the sides, and lift the tree by the root ball, not by the trunk, to place it in the hole. Using a pocket knife, slice through the sides of the root ball to free any roots that are starting to circle the tree.
If the tree is balled and burlapped, cut away the twine and cut off the top of the burlap. If a wire basket is holding the root ball together, use wire cutters to remove the top half of the basket.
3. Fill the hole one-third full of the soil that was dug from the hole. If the soil is extremely heavy clay or pure sand, mix in organic matter such as compost. Stand away from the hole and make sure the tree is straight.
4. Turn on the hose to a pencil-wide stream of water and let it run in the hole until it is half full of water. Let the water settle the soil.
5. Resume filling the hole with soil until it is full.
6. Place organic mulch in a ring around the tree, mounding it 2 to 4 inches and keeping it from matting around the trunk. The wider the better when it comes to mulch rings, but it should at least cover the planting hole.
7. Water the tree thoroughly across the entire mulch ring. Don’t fertilize.
8. Stake the tree if it’s in a windy site to anchor the root ball so that roots will get established. Place the stake at a southwest angle. Make sure ties will not cut into the trunk. Remove the stake after one growing season.
9. Water the tree once a week until the leaves drop off if rain is lacking, twice a week if it’s in sandy, well-drained soil. Once the leaves drop, a monthly watering (if there is no rainfall) when the soil is not frozen will help a newly planted tree. (If the tree is in an irrigated part of the lawn, you probably can reduce watering frequency.)
If you’re going deep with a tree spade, call Kansas One Call before planting or setting fence to avoid hitting any utility lines. The number is 811.
A reader also wrote to ask how to handle neighbors’ trees that encroach on his property. According to the city of Wichita’s Neighborhood Resource Guide, property owners should work it out between themselves unless a tree presents a hazard. In that case, they can consult the city.