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Caring For Trees And Shrubs In The Fall

Caring For Trees And Shrubs In The Fall

By Melinda Myers, ISA Certified Arborist, for Milorganite
Photographs courtesy of Melinda Myers, LLC

Fall is a season of transition in the landscape. Some of you are busy preparing for a cold winter while others are swapping out plantings for the cooler season ahead. No matter where you garden, give your trees and shrubs some special attention this fall. These key plants take years to develop into their mature size and beauty so keeping them healthy and looking their best is worth the effort.

Proper watering is key to the health and longevity of trees and shrubs. These plants are often overlooked during hot, dry weather as we focus our care on flowers and vegetables. Drought stressed trees and shrubs may develop brown leaves during the growing season, drop leaves earlier in the fall and succumb to insect and disease problems in future years.

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Continue to water trees and shrubs as needed throughout the fall. Pay special attention to new plantings and those that require moist soil conditions. Water new plantings thoroughly and often enough to keep the root ball and surrounding soil moist. Even established trees benefit from proper watering during dry periods. Water thoroughly whenever the top four to six inches of soil are crumbly and slightly moist.

Soak the area under and six feet beyond the branch spread as tree roots extend two to five times the height of the tree away from its trunk. Water the area under and several feet beyond the area covered by the shrubs.

Use a soaker hose to place water directly on the soil and above the root zone where it is needed. You’ll spend less time dragging hoses and sprinklers and waste less water.

Or convert discarded 5 gallon buckets into slow-release watering devices. Drill holes in the bottom of the bucket. Place several buckets beneath the tree canopy. You’ll need to apply 10 gallons of water for each diameter inch of the tree. Fill the buckets with water and let gravity do the work. 

Mulch the soil surface around trees and shrubs to conserve moisture, reduce competition from grass, suppress weeds and prevent string trimmers and mowers from damaging the plants. This means less work for you and a better growing environment for the plants.

Create as large a mulch area under your trees and surrounding your shrubs as you can tolerate. Spread a two to three inch layer of shredded bark or woodchips over the soil surface. Pull the mulch away from the trunk and off the shrub stems. Piling mulch against the plants can lead to rot and other problems.

Fertilize trees and shrubs in need of a nutrient boost in late fall. Although above ground growth has stopped, the roots are still absorbing needed nutrients. Follow soil test recommendations or use Milorganite, a low nitrogen, slow release fertilizer that promotes equal top and root growth and won’t harm already stressed trees. In addition, when microorganisms release nutrients from Milorganite pellets some of the phosphorous and potassium bound to the soil is also released. Phosphorous promotes root growth, flowering and fruiting and potassium increases disease resistance and hardiness.

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Follow the recommended rates on the Milorganite bag or at Just spread the Milorganite over the mulch area and lightly rake it into the soil surface below. Let nature move it down through the soil and to the plant roots.

You’ll need a different approach for trees growing in the lawn. Apply small amounts of fertilizer throughout the area under and six feet beyond the branch spread. Start two feet away from the trunk and every two feet along concentric circles around the tree. Use a dandelion digger or similar tool to apply the fertilizer six to twelve inches below the grass roots for the tree to absorb.

Prevent snow and ice loads from damaging upright arborvitae and junipers. Loosely tie the stems together with strips of cotton cloth or wrap the plant in bird netting. Reduce salt damage to all your plants by shoveling first and only then applying a plant-friendly deicing salt.

Start now to prevent hungry critters from damaging your plants this winter. Protect new plantings and other susceptible plants with a cylinder of hardware cloth. Create a four-foot high fence with several inches sunk into the ground to reduce the risk of vole and rabbit damage. Enclose small planting beds with a fence five feet high to protect them from deer.

If you opt for repellents apply them before the animals begin feeding for best results. Look for a rain and snow resistant product to extend the time between applications. This will save you time reapplying as well as money.

Investing time in proper fall care will help your trees and shrubs recover from summer stress and provide long lasting beauty in your landscape.

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