Even the best gardeners can lose trees during unusually hot, dry conditions. Pests and diseases can attack at any moment, leaving gaping holes in hedgerows, foundation plantings and other parts of your landscape.
Instead of waiting until next year to fill those holes, take advantage of the excellent planting conditions during a Kansas City fall.
Matt Stueck of Suburban Lawn & Garden says fall is the best time to plant almost any species of hardy tree. His short list of trees that don’t perform well with fall planting includes magnolias and dogwoods. Otherwise, he recommends picking any tree that is a zone 5 (tolerates minus 26 degrees) or hardier.
“Any time that the ground isn’t frozen is a great time to plant trees” is one of Stueck’s favorite sayings.
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When thinking about a landscape design, Stueck suggests that you “start from the top down. Plan the trees first. They are going to live the longest and affect the value of your property the most dramatically.”
For example, fall offers an opportunity to add the Midwest native chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii). Then in the spring, you can fill in smaller areas with native viburnum shrubs. Perennials such as echinaceas and rudbekias would finish off a look that is attractive to people and birds alike. Butterflies and goldfinches will flock to this new planting in the first year.
But, Stueck warns, “trees can also negatively affect your property value. It is always important to put the right tree in the right place.”
Make sure that all trees and plants have room to grow to their mature size, and consult someone if you need help with your design.
With a good plan, a tree will be attractive at smaller stages as well as its mature size.
“For curb appeal’s sake, do not plant a tree in front of your front door. Plan before you plant, and get educated,” Stueck says.
By consulting your local nursery, plant guru or gardening blog, you can be sure to find the perfect tree to plant in your yard this fall. The hundreds of trees available gives you the freedom to choose those that match your personal landscape taste.
If your Zen moments come from crisp mornings and delicate spring blooms, then trees such as redbuds, cherries and crabapples are the way to go. You can also join in the popular and tasty edible landscape movement and go with pecans, amelanchiers and pears. Thanks to plant breeders, many of these trees have multiple flower color options, so you can be bright and vibrant or soft and dreamy with your color palette.
Ginkgos and black gum are on the list of trees that have striking fall foliage. If you peruse the rows at your favorite local nursery now you can see all of the fabulous fall colors that are available. You may need to bring sunglasses, looking at the rainbow of reds, oranges, yellows and purples.
Winter interest is how seasoned gardeners describe trees that have at least one attribute that can be enjoyed during the cold, bleak months. With evergreens such as junipers and spruce you have winter interest in the form of blue textural hues. Other trees such as winterberry holly and crabapple have winter beauty with their showy red fruit that the local bird population adores.
Look for deciduous trees that have interesting branching, like a stoic and gnarly burr oak, and those with curious-looking bark. The China snow tree lilac has a shiny bark that curls and peels in curious ways.
Johnson County Extension master gardener Judy Jackson prefers planting and moving trees in the fall. She says, “Plant trees now, so they have all winter to start establishing roots. Everything else in the garden has gone to sleep, so there is no competition for tree roots.”
To get started, Jackson suggests that gardeners dig the hole twice as wide as the rootball and make sure that one-fourth of the flare is above the ground.
Planting a few inches high counteracts the sinkage that will occur later on, when the tree is watered and the ground settles.
She also advises mulching new trees but, “Don’t put too much mulch around the six inches closest to the trunk of the tree. It is an area that fosters insects and moisture that can cause problems.”
Noelle Morris, of Bridging the Gap’s Heartland Tree Alliance, agrees.
“One of the main causes of tree and shrub death is improper planting. Either the wrong place or the wrong way,” she says.
Poor maintenance of newly planted trees can also lead to their demise. Morris has seen trees planted too deep, then left without mulch. Other times they are mulched improperly and not sufficiently watered.
After a few years, established trees have an expansive root system that allows you to swap the mulch for shade-loving shrubs and perennials, if you so choose.
Brandon Hendrickson of K.C. Arborist notes that about every third year we have a winter drought; snow can be deceiving when calculating how much moisture we actually get.
“Newly planted trees will need supplemental water for the first winter,” he says. The equivalent of about one to two inches of rain a week when temperatures are above freezing should keep newly planted trees healthy and boost root growth.
“Fall is also our favorite time to fertilize trees, because if we wait until the trees are dormant and do a deep root fertilization, it helps promote a good root growth in the winter, which is when most of your root growth occurs,” Hendrickson adds.
Fertilizing during late October or November, before the ground freezes, will make your trees healthier next spring.
After planting the perfect specimen in the perfect location, keep the pruning sheers in the shed for at least a year or two. Try to pick a tree that already has a nice shape, so that when the roots are fully established, you can pick up your pruners and make adjustments as needed.
As for established trees, they can be pruned during the winter with only a few exceptions. Early spring flowering trees should be done with care so as not to prune off flower buds. Oaks and elms need to be pruned after winter is fully under way to avoid oak wilt and Dutch elm disease. Maples and birch should be pruned before January because of their running sap.
Any tree that is susceptible to borers especially needs to be pruned in the winter. This leaves time for the tree to heal before the insects are active in the spring. Borers are the worst local tree scourge.
They find a tree with a weak spot to crawl into, then bore into the layers of the trunk that transport water and nutrients.
By using proper techniques of design, planting and care, you can add trees to your yard right now. Get inspired by the fabulous fall weather, get outside and get planting.
Midwestern tree scourge: The emerald ash borer
The emerald ash borer is a tree pest that is making its way across the country. By keeping informed, homeowners can join in the fight to stop the destruction to ash trees.
If you have an ash tree with branches dying and “D”-shaped holes, contact local county extension agents immediately at 866-716-9974 in Missouri and 785-862-2180 in Kansas. They can properly assess if you have the dreaded beetle. .
If you have the borer, local certified arborists can help you take the tree down and properly dispose of it. Most areas will let you keep the infected wood for firewood as long as it doesn’t leave your property.
Trees for all seasons
Here are trees that local experts recommend for fall color and winter interest.
▪ Maple ‘Autumn Blaze’ (Acer x freemanii ‘Autumn Blaze’): This maple puts on a show of fiery color in the fall, even after scorching Kansas City summers.
▪ Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica): This deciduous tree has been loved by native plant enthusiasts for years because of its striking red fall leaf color. Nurseries offer varieties like ‘Red Rage’ and ‘Wildfire.’
▪ Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba): With their eye-catching yellow leaves against grayish white bark, ginkgos are striking in the fall. If you can stand the smell of the fruit, the female trees are a cherished food source in some cultures. The seeds can be roasted and enjoyed as a healthy snack. For areas near sidewalks, the male form is preferred.
▪ Juniper (Juniperus virginiana): The upright juniper ‘Taylor’ is a favorite of Suburban Lawn & Garden’s Matt Stueck. He likes their ability to survive our hot, dry summers. They keep their soft, blue evergreen needles all year.
▪ Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata): This native shrub can be easily kept as a small tree. When the deciduous leaves drop in the fall it reveals bright red fruit that attracts birds and glows against the winter landscape.
▪ Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum): This tree may look like an evergreen, but as its name suggests, the leaves fall off in winter. That is when the fabulous, richly colored bark is exposed. It’s one of the favorites of K.C. Arborist’s Brandon Hendrickson for providing winter interest.