If working in horticulture taught me anything, it’s that autumn is criminally overlooked as a time to plant trees and shrubs.

Trees and shrubs, especially in urban areas, provide cooling effects by shading heat-absorbing surfaces and cooling the air through transpiration. They also serve as habitat for wildlife, sequester carbon, reduce storm runoff and provide erosion control. And if that isn’t enough, look outside. They’re gorgeous!

How to plant trees and shrubs

The following tips were seared into my brain while working alongside horticultural experts. They apply to planting shrubs as well.

The root ball and root collar of a potted tree.
  • In the Pacific Northwest, you can plant trees any day of the year, as long as the ground isn’t frozen or sopping wet.
  • Understand the tree’s preferred sun and soil conditions, and choose a planting site accordingly. Ask a nursery professional for help with this.
  • Dig the hole twice as wide as the width of the tree’s root ball and no deeper than the height of the root ball. There’s a great diagram and more planting tips here. As you dig, note the moisture level in the soil. How deep has water naturally penetrated the soil?
  • Remove the tree from its container (nursery pot, burlap sack, box, etc.) and tease the roots so they aren’t circling. Place the tree in the center of the hole.
  • Backfill the soil about halfway. Remove air pockets by tamping the soil with handle of the shovel. Continue filling and tamping until the soil level is above the highest roots and below the root collar. The goal is to maintain the same soil level as the container it was purchased in.
  • Once the tree is planted, water slow and deep with a drip line/soaker house. The goal is to deliver water at least 12 inches into the soil. As a test, run the soaker hose for two hours, then wait two hours to let the water penetrate. Then, dig into the soil, avoiding the root ball, to see how deep the water penetrated. Adjust watering time accordingly.
  • Mulch the planting site with organic wood chips or compost to help retain moisture and provide nutrients.
  • The tree will rely on you for water for its first three years in the ground. Do not count on rain to provide sufficient water between Easter and Thanksgiving.

Why buy and plant trees in fall?

Understandably, spring gets all of the gardening glory because of the blooming flowers and chirping birds and whatnot. But in the Pacific Northwest, spring is followed by several months of hot, dry weather that can torch a freshly planted tree. Fall, however, is followed by several months of ample rainfall (aka free water), giving newly planted trees time to settle in for the next growing season.

Here’s a few more reasons to buy and plant trees in the fall:

  • Shopping in fall allows you to choose a tree based on its fall color. This is when many deciduous trees and shrubs display their best features. Look around your neighborhood and decide which trees would go well in your yard.
  • Fall is a great time to be outside. What better than a cool, crisp autumn day to dig a big hole?
  • Plant while you’re in tune with your yard. After months of watching the sun scorch certain places and ignore others, you’re more likely to properly site your tree.
  • Get ahead for spring. Instead of buying a tree when it’s already in full bloom (and headed past bloom), have it planted and ready for spring.
  • Fall nursery sales. Some nurseries sell down their stock with fall tree sales. Nurseries that overwinter their stock tend to bring in trees specifically for fall color.
  • Beat the crowds. Nothing takes away from the peaceful atmosphere of a nursery like crowds of people. Fall is usually more peaceful and the nursery staff will be more available to help you.
  • Buy and sell trees on Craigslist. Although it comes with the usual risks, plants and trees available on Craigslist are often cheaper than retail.

If your yard is at capacity, check out our events page for upcoming tree-planting events. Native shrubs and trees are especially crucial to shade streams for spawning salmon.

Our favorite fall trees

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Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) flush yellow in fall and release a sweet, cotton candy like fragrance.
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Sweetgum (liquidambar styraciflua) flushes red, orange and purple.
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Dogwoods (Cornus) often flush reddish-purple, depending on the variety.
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This birch (Betula) has beautiful white, peeling bar and yellow fall foliage.
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Vine maples (Acer circunatum) are a PNW native with wonderful fall color.
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Japanese and Korean Stewartia are great street trees with exfoliating bark and gorgeous fall color.

Shrubs for fall color

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Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) is an exclamation mark for any fall garden.
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Spirea, including PNW native Spiraea douglasii, is good for pollinators, birds and fall color.
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Barberry (Berberis) comes in many colors. It flushes brilliantly before dropping its leaves.
Snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus) is another PNW native. It’s white berries form in fall and persist through the winter.