Some of our most ecologically-important native plants are trees and shrubs (aka woodies). They provide critical structure and ecological function to our landscapes. Some are early pollen sources for hungry bees, some have fruits, nuts or seeds for birds and mammals, some are host plants for butterflies, some are nesting sites for songbirds, and some, primarily evergreens, provide cover to many creatures during harsh winters.
Woody plants have tremendous importance for humans, as well. Have a storm water problem? Trees, in particular, can draw up and intercept a remarkable amount of storm water. In New York City, street trees are estimated to intercept 1,525 gallons of water per year on average. Improved air quality, slowing of climate change, moderation of summer heat and winter cold, are some of the valuable benefits delivered to us by woody plants.
Fall is a perfect time to plant many trees and shrubs. Some woodies, including broadleaved evergreens like Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurels, are better planted in the spring, as are some spring bloomers like Magnolias. But, for many deciduous trees and shrubs, fall planting is ideal. The warm days and cool nights of fall in much of the country promote healthy root growth.
When selecting native trees and shrubs, do your research and emphasize species that are native to your region and which are adapted to your conditions. We are just beginning to understand the complex relationships between flora and fauna. If you emulate healthy natural landscapes, you contribute to the success of these ecological interactions.
Favor straight species plants in lieu of cultivars for genetic diversity. Some situations call for cultivars, but remember that biodiversity is key to a healthy ecosystem. If possible, buy plants from local growers which have conditions that emulate your landscape. Supporting good regional nurseries benefits us and our ecosystems. We have discovered the value of buying locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Why don’t we shop this way for plants? Let’s start!
Plan to get any new trees and shrubs in the ground at least 6 to 8 weeks before hard frost. Here are some tips for planting:
Skip the fertilizer, unless you have gotten a soil test that indicates a deficiency of some sort. Large fertilizer companies have trained us to apply fertilizers whether plants need them or not. Most times, plants don’t need them. If you have a known soil deficiency, slow-release, organic fertilizers are the way to go. If needed, use half of the rate recommended by the manufacturer. Less is more, and usually that’s plenty.
Many plants that you purchase from a nursery, a garden center, or a big box store, have been excessively fertilized to push lots of growth. After all, bigger plants sell better. The problem is that chemical fertilizers often contain large quantities of salts that are very desiccating to plants. These salts can cause significant damage to a plant’s root system. Flushing out some of these salts with regular watering is key.
When planting new trees or shrubs in the fall, it is particularly important to water the roots of your new plants until hard frost occurs. Fall watering will lessen the negative impact of fertilizer salts and will help plants establish a healthy root system before winter sets in. This adds up to a better survival rate through winter.
There is a bit of a science to watering. Deep, less frequent watering promotes deeper roots and makes for a more drought tolerant plant. Two deep waterings a week by you or Mother Nature will often suffice, depending on your region and how warm the fall season is. When you water, do it early in the day, focusing on the roots. Skip overhead watering, which is notorious for creating fungal problems, and is also highly wasteful and inefficient.
Increase the health of your woody plants by building healthy soil. Compost and compost teas can be invaluable in improving soil health. Always use the best quality compost you can make or buy. Compost should have no foul odor and should be quite well decomposed, devoid of large chunks. Add compost and/or a drench of compost tea to the root zone of all of your woody plants in the fall, for a late season health boost.
Plant some valuable native trees and shrubs this fall. You’ll be glad you did, when spring comes around!
From Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!
Photo: Impressive bark on a tree in the Smokies (Anyone recognize it?)
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