Can I plant shrubs and trees now?
This is a question I often get this time of year. In fact, this is the best time of the year to plant shrubs and trees.
In the South, winters are pretty mild compared with other areas of the country. The soil rarely gets cold enough for roots to stop growing during the winter.
Soil temperatures will get into the mid to high 40s, and at these temperatures roots will continue to grow. So, if you plant in the fall and winter, you can have an established root system before the heat of summer hits.
Plants that are planted in the fall and winter will need less water during the summer, because their established root systems can better use the soil moisture.
The plants will also use less water during cooler weather, which causes the top of the plant to go dormant or slow down growth to the point that less water is required.
Because the plant growth has slowed down or stopped, the plant is not transpiring, so there is very little water loss from the leaves.
To ensure plants have the best start possible, properly prepare the soil for planting. The first step is to have the soil analyzed to see if additional lime is needed. The soil sample will tell what nutrients are available for the plant.
Once a soil sample has been taken, the soil should be prepared for planting. One of the biggest mistakes that I see is someone buying a $20 plant and planting it in a $1 hole.
The best way to prepare the soil is to till the area to be planted 6 to 8 inches deep. I know that is hard to do in our clay soils, but deep tilling will help a plant deal with moisture extremes.
A trick that I use around my house is to cover the area that I intend to plant with a layer of mulch 3 to 5 inches deep. I then water the mulch and leave it on the area for two to three months. This will loosen the soil and make it easier to work.
When I have tilled the soil, I will add soil conditioner or fine ground pine bark to the bed area to help loosen the soil and improve drainage.
If you are unable to till the whole bed or you are planting one or two plants, dig the hole three to four times larger than the root-ball of the plant. Use the native soil to fill in around the plant.
Adding organic matter to the plant hole will create an environment that is different from the surrounding soil. This can lead to the plant roots staying in the area with the better soil instead of spreading out.
Also, this different soil type tends to draw water into the planting hole. This will cause too much water to be around the root system of the plant and disease problems such as root rot will occur.
When planting, plant at the depth that the plant was growing in the container, or slightly higher. Planting trees or shrubs too deep will cause the roots of the plant to suffocate, and the plant will die.
When planting trees, look for the trunk flare. This is the area of the trunk at ground level that will be larger than the rest of the trunk. It needs to be above ground. If you are having problems with newly planted trees 1 to 3 years old, look for this root flare. If you don't see it, this tree is planted too deep.
Also, if you are planting ball-and-burlapped plants, make sure to cut the wire or cord that is tied around the trunk that holds the burlap in place.
I have seen numerous trees that have died because this cord or wire has been left around the trunk, girdling the tree.
Also, when planting plants that are root-bound, make four to six small slits with a knife to spread the root system out. When planting, don't add any fertilizer in the planting hole. Plan to add the fertilizer in the spring when the plant starts to grow.
Three to 5 inches of mulch around the plants will help conserve moisture and keep a more uniform moisture level in the soil. Another benefit of mulch is that it will help keep the soil warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
The best mulches to use include organic mulches like pine straw, pine bark, cypress or hardwood mulches. Rock or stone mulches increase the heat around plants and cause them to use more water.
The last tip for successful planting is to water newly planted plants regularly when they are first planted. A rule of thumb is a gallon of water per foot of plant height.
In the fall and winter, water these plants two to three times per week, if we are not getting rain, for the first month. As the plants get older, reduce the amount of water.
Charles Phillips is a retired Columbia County Extension Service agent and operates Hort Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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