Most homeowners think of spring as the best time to plant deciduous container-grown, balled and burlaped (B & B) shrubs and trees. However, October and November are considered the best time for moving these woody plants in the landscape. In the professional landscape industry, planting goes on year-round. And, in Cherokee County, you can plant shrubs and trees anytime the ground is not frozen. But the earlier in the fall, the better. Garden centers and nurseries usually stock a broad selection of woody shrubs and trees at this time of year.
Planting in the fall has distinct advantages. Referencing the Georgia Master Gardner Handbook, the reason for fall planting of woody ornamental shrubs and trees is, “Unlike the tops of ornamental plants that go dormant and cease growth for the winter, roots or ornamental plants continue to grow throughout the winter months. During the fall, the above-ground portion of a plant begins slowing down its growth and moving toward dormancy, so it makes little demand on its roots. Therefore, the energy produced via photosynthesis during the previous season can be directed to root growth. Then, when spring arrives and a new growing season begins, the plant has a well-established root system ready to provide the necessary water and nutrients for optimum plant growth.”
As long as the soil temperature stays consistently above 40 degrees F, the woody plant roots of fall-planted specimens will continue to grow. I did a quick review at the UGA weather website using the Average Soil Temperature Calculator from the weather site in Ball Ground between October 1 and March 11. Of course, the soil temperature varies by month and location within the county. I found that the average winter soil temperature at four inches is around 51 degrees F.
There are exceptions to the fall planting practice, however. One exception is to wait until the late winter or early spring to transplant existing evergreens in your landscape from one place to another location. The reason for to delay is moisture loss through the evergreen foliage during the winter. In addition, evergreens do not generate much root growth during the winter to help the plant recover from root damage during the transplanting process.
When the evergreen foliage loses more moisture than the damaged semi-dormant roots can replenish, the evergreen foliage takes on a bronzed or off-color brown appearance. Windy conditions with dry winter soil will exacerbate this condition. Because of moisture loss through the evergreen foliage during the winter, it is essential that, if you do, plant container-grown and balled and burlapped evergreen shrubs and trees in the late fall or winter, you make sure that they have adequate soil moisture.
Another general exception to this recommendation is that fall is not the time to plant bare-rooted woody plants. Compared to container-grown and balled and burlapped (B &B) plants, they have a minimal root system to sustain the plants. This is especially true of bare-rooted pine and other evergreen seedlings. As a result, they do very poorly when transplanted in the fall because they cannot develop an adequate root system before the winter weather occurs. This situation also applies to fruit and nut trees. Therefore, they also should be planted in the late winter and early spring.
If you want to transplant an existing deciduous shrub or tree in the landscape, I encourage you to wait until after the first or second hard frost has occurred. Waiting to plant until after a frost will help to make sure that the plant has hardened off.
Proper watering of fall transplanted shrubs and trees is especially important to the success of the transplanting effort. At the time of transplanting, soak the root ball and surrounding soil. A thorough watering every 7 to 10 days increases the transplanting success rate. Watch the weather to see if adequate rainfall is occurring during the winter. If there is sufficient soil moisture, do not water. More trees and shrubs fail from over drowning than from under-watering. Also, remember that the root balls of container-grown plants will dry out sooner than balled and burlapped (B & B) root systems.
Do not fertilize your tree or shrub after planting. Wait until early in the spring to do this, and even then, go lightly. Heavy applications of fertilizer may burn and injure the root system and could kill the plant.