By PAUL HETZLER
Fall is a good time for planting trees and shrubs. It’s also a good time for football, hunting, stamp collecting, chess, and a host of other things, but that’s beside the point. Autumn is usually cool and wet, which is ideal planting weather, and in addition, garden centers and nurseries often mark down inventory to clear the slate for next season. While nursery stock may be planted any time the ground can be worked, outcomes are better and prices lower in the fall.
But if you’ve had your eye on a wild tree that you’d like to dig up and plant in the yard, there’s a big advantage to doing so now.
Once all the leaves are off, established trees go dormant and are less likely to object if you dig them up and move them. Just make sure you have permission, or it’s not the tree’s objections you’ll have to worry about.
Look for a specimen with a central trunk and well-spaced branches. It’s preferable to go for a small tree over an impressive one—small trees establish themselves more quickly with less transplant shock and more often than not will surpass the “impressive” tree in a few years.
The root zone is at least twice the branch length and extends roughly twelve inches deep, so when you dig, go as far out as you can manage. Keep the roots covered when moving the tree.
The planting hole should be saucer-shaped and twice as wide as the root ball, but no deeper. It’s essential that the tree be set at the same depth it was growing originally and that the root ball rests on hard, undisturbed soil.
Unless you’re planting in highly compacted soil or construction fill, the soil in the planting hole probably does not need any amendments. If additional organic matter is needed, though, go for some rich compost over peat moss, and definitely do not put any under the root ball.
Mulch around the tree (pull mulch away from the trunk) and keep it watered right through mid-December. Hold off on any fertilizer the first year, and do not stake your new tree, unless you went for the really impressive eight-footer. Movement is what creates a strong trunk, much the way exercise strengthens us.
Have fun rounding up those free wild trees, but keep it legal and don’t become a tree rustler. That can only be done when the leaves are on, anyway.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.