Your Fall Tree Planting Guide

Autumn is the magical time of brisk mornings, hot apple cider, and approximately one to three million leaves in the yard that must be raked and bagged.

Close up of a a pair of human hands planting a young tree in the early fall.

But before the leaves fall, while you’re out in the garden doing your autumn perennial cutbacks, consider whether your landscape could use another tree or two. Even if it means more leaves to rake.

Yes? You’re in luck! Fall is the perfect time to plant trees. So finish your tidying up, head inside, warm up some cider, and decide which tree might be best for you and your yard.

Why Plant in Fall?

Planting in autumn, with the season’s still-warm soil and plentiful rains, offers a tree just the right amount of time to establish a root system before the ground freezes (if that’s a thing where you live).

A little girl and her grandparents plant a tree in a suburban backyard in the autumn. All are wearing light jackets.

When the air temperature is cooler than the soil, a tree is likely to produce new root growth without new top growth.

When the tree comes out of dormancy in early spring, it will have a stronger, better developed root system and be in good shape to collect water and nutrients to grow and leaf out before the blaze of summer hits.

Although nurseries of all types are getting smarter about stocking a good supply of trees in the fall, you may have to shop around a bit to find the best selection.

“Fall” Is in the Eye of the Beholder

It’s important to give some thought to what “fall” is where you live.

What Vermonters, for example, call fall may be what we in Central Texas call late-summer-still-freaking-hot-will-temps-ever-drop?

While the calendar and Hallmark movies (hayride with a handsome leading man, anyone?) may say one thing, your local climate may say something altogether different.

A country setting with wooden fences and mature maple trees with orange and red fall leaves.

When it comes to planting trees, pick a time when air temperatures have cooled so that newly planted trees can focus on establishing root systems without being stressed by extreme heat.

You also need to time your tree planting so that the soil is still warm, at least 50°F. Use a soil thermometer to measure the soil temperature for a few consecutive days.

If you’re worried you have missed your window, another sign to look for is whether trees in your neighborhood still have their leaves. If so, and if everything else lines up, get digging!

How to Plant a Tree

Have you rented a backhoe? Kidding. But on the day you plan to install your new tree, you can skip the gym. You’ll get in a good workout in the yard.

Dig your bowl-shaped hole about the same depth as the tree’s root ball, but as much as – are you sitting down? – FIVE times the width.

Check the planting instructions for the particular tree you’re planting – you may have to excavate only three times the width, but definitely check the recommendations for your specific tree.

A little girl and her grandmother plant a tree in the chilly fall.

Settle the root ball in the center of the UFO-crater-sized hole you’ve dug, and then backfill with the dirt you removed. Gently tamp the soil to remove air pockets, but don’t compact the dirt. The root collar should be slightly above the soil line.

Water well, and if the soil settles too much, add some more of the backfill.

Thoroughly mulch the area. Water deeply two or three times a week, if Mother Nature isn’t providing sufficient showers.

Put the Remote Down and Get Outside

Fall is more than just the breathless anticipation of “Grey’s Anatomy” coming back after the long summer hiatus.

It’s tree-planting time. Choose a tree or two that are suited for your area, rent a backhoe, and get planting! Come springtime – when your favorite TV show signs off again – you’ll be glad you took the time to put in the work out back.

What trees have you been thinking about planting? In the comments section below, share your plans to sequester a little more carbon from the atmosphere.

If you’re wondering which trees to plant, here are some ideas:

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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