Garden Q&A: Planting shrubs in the fall

Is it too late to plant shrubs or trees? I see a lot of good plant sales, but not sure I should take advantage of them.

Fall is an excellent time to plant most shrubs, trees, grasses and perennials. Early to mid-fall is the best time because plants have three seasons — fall, winter, spring — to get established before they must face the heat and drought stresses of summer.

Keep in mind that by now sale plants have been in containers for many months and may be root-bound. You can often slip plants out of containers before buying to check for circling roots. To prevent roots, such as those pictured, from continuing to grow in circles when planted, manually tease out roots so they point into the surrounding soil. Washing off some soil may help. When roots have formed a thick and/or woody mat, they can be sliced every few inches and then teased out. Some root volume will be sacrificed.

One exception to fall planting is broad-leaved evergreens, though hollies, boxwood and mountain laurel should do all right with early fall planting. A short list of trees preferring spring planting includes: birch, dogwood, hawthorns, magnolias, oaks, poplar, sourwood, sweet gum, tulip poplar and willow. No matter what you plant, be alert for fall droughts and never let a plant go into winter in dry soil. Water during dry spells for two years until established.

I love fall colors and want to plant a tree with good fall color. What’s the best one? Or the longest-lasting to extend garden interest?

You’re in luck, because Maryland is a good state for nine of the 10 most colorful fall trees, according to the Arbor Day Foundation. Each species has different characteristics. Bald cypress is unique because it looks like a pyramidal evergreen when green. Sugar maples are famous for their colors, but really only happy in colder Western Maryland. Sourwood (Oxydendron) and sassafras are smaller trees. Tupelo, red maple and sweet gum all display a range of hues, including brilliant reds. Sweet gum reportedly lasts the longest. All of the top 10 are U.S. natives except Japanese maple, only some of which display good fall color. Be sure to consider shrubs with great fall color and berries that last into winter, such as winterberry, blueberry or spicebush.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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