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Time for trees: Trees and shrubs benefit from fall planting

Shortly after noon this past Thursday, a somewhat unconventional birthday bash was under way in Steve Zaiser's back yard, just south of downtown Fargo.

Shortly after noon this past Thursday, a somewhat unconventional birthday bash was under way in Steve Zaiser's back yard, just south of downtown Fargo.

Kneeling on his neatly mowed lawn, Zaiser planted a red maple he had just purchased at Baker Nursery. With its gorgeous fall foliage, the tree would provide both shade and a scarlet centerpiece for the yard.

It was also a birthday gift for Zaiser's grandson, Logan, who turned 1 year old that day. Logan saluted the sendoff of his present with joyful chirps from a blanket on the lawn.

"As they say, a tree lasts forever and keeps on giving," Zaiser said, as he flattened the soil around the trunk with his hands.

In fact, this time of year is a great time to plant a tree or a shrub - even if not a single birthday you celebrate falls in the following couple of months.


Of course, gardeners can brighten their yards with chill-resistant fall annuals, such as pansies, calendula, viola and poppies. But those in search of more permanent additions should not let the impending frosty months scare them off until spring.

Local experts say fall planting of trees and shrubs offers several major advantages over spring planting.

A drawback for spring planting is that it often does not provide enough time before scorching summer heat descends on fragile new trees, which are still dealing with transplant shock.

"The success rate is higher with fall planting because you don't have 90-degree weather all the time," according to Rick Abrahamson, a horticulturalist with the University of Minnesota Clay County Extension Service.

At the same time, the soil stays moist and warm enough into December, which lets young trees develop strong root systems before they go dormant for the winter.

A tree planted now certainly won't spawn an explosion of foliage yet this fall, but it will have a head start on spring growth, according to Dave Liquin, manager of Fargo's S&S Landscaping Co.

In the heat of summer, gardeners tend to overwater new plants, causing their demise much more often than if they had watered too little.

"In the fall, people just leave the trees be, and they tend to do much better," Abrahamson said.


Good deals can also be found in the fall, as many nurseries seek to trim down inventory before the start of winter. If you shop for new additions selectively, you can ensure a splash of bright fall color in your backyard or garden.

Some trees with foliage that turns red in the fall are dogwood, red or scarlet oak, sweet and black gum and red maple. Bright-colored shrubs in the fall include viburnum and barberry.

Generally, any time between now through the end of October is excellent for tree and shrub planting, but in years with a long, mild fall, S&S Landscaping has been known to stay busy past Thanksgiving.

"About the time you get that first frost is the time you should stop planting," Liquin said.

Although Abrahamson says just about any tree and shrub species is suited for fall planting, he advises extra caution when planting evergreens this time of year. They lose moisture through their needles and might end up short of water as winter starts. Liquin suggests watering evergreens during warm spells in winter.

Over time, Zaiser's birthday plantings have had dual benefits, tying together generations and beautifying the once bare backyard.

Zaiser planted an evergreen for his son, Will, when he was 4. Will, who is Logan's father, now looks up at a healthy spruce that towers more than 15 feet above the lawn in a corner of the yard.

Without birthdays to mark, over the years Zaiser has planted three other trees in the backyard, where a soft shade now reigns.


"Vegetation warms up a property," he says. "You see yards that don't have it, and they look stark."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

Planting a tree, step by step

- Step 1: Plan strategically

"Find out how the species grows in nature, and try to mimic nature as much as possible," says Rick Abrahamson of the University of Minnesota's Extension Service. For instance, if the tree thrives naturally in dry soil, plant it on a slope, where it will get less moisture than in low-lying parts of your yard.

Also, visualize your tree in a decade, and stay away from power lines or the roof of your home. Plant shrubs at least 2 feet away from house walls to protect them from reflected heat. "If they are too close, the shrubs can bake right there," says Dave Liquin of S&S Landscaping.

- Step 2: Dig a hole

Make your hole two to three times as wide as the root ball, but not any deeper than it: You need a solid base to prevent your tree from sinking.


- Step 3: Place the tree in its new home

Before setting the plant in the hole, cut off any circling roots as they might strangle the plant eventually. After carefully lowering the plant in the hole, cover the roots with the soil you dug out. Unless the soil is of the really poor clay variety, don't risk "spoiling" the plant by adding organic matter.

"The tougher conditions we give it initially," says Abrahamson, "the more quickly it will get out looking for water and nutrients." You can add a 3-inch layer of mulch, such as shredded bark, keeping slightly away from the trunk, to help retain moisture.

- Step 4: Water

"Right after you plant, you want to soak it completely," says Liquin. Watering the entire hole thoroughly will help settle the dirt and get rid of air pockets.

Then, water just the root ball with a gentle trickle once every week to two weeks.

"You don't want to fertilize the new tree or shrub for the first year of growth," says Abrahamson.

- Step 5: To stake or not?


Instead of staking the new tree right after planting, experts suggest holding off and staking only if regular checkups reveal signs of loosening.

"Movement of the tree is essential for the development of a strong trunk," says Abrahamson.

For that reason, if you do need to stake, "There should be enough slack so you can put your finger in comfortably, without squishing it," says Liquin.

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