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Attention Alabama gardeners: Fall is prime time to plant trees, shrubs

A little planning before you plant can help ensure a happy outcome.

Feel that nip in the air? OK, maybe it’s not quite a nip just yet in Alabama. But with the official start of fall just days away, it is getting cooler – which means the time is just about perfect to plant trees and shrubs.

But before you begin your fall planting, there are a few things to think about.

Brian Brown, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System home horticulture agent, said two of the most important things to do before planting are to take a soil test and to correct any drainage issues.

Testing can provide important information about the health of the soil — and whether it’s necessary to adjust soil pH or add other nutrients.

“Soil test kits are available at your local Extension office, along with information on how to collect the soil and send it to the Auburn University Soil, Forage and Water Testing Lab,” Brown said.

“If you’ve already completed a soil test, you are one step ahead,” Brown said.

Typical fall planting problems

Brown said most problems have to do with water or the lack of it. So, correcting drainage issues is a major step in keeping plants healthy. Plants getting too much water, or too little, will exhibit the same symptoms.

Also take a good look around before you plant your tree. Is your chosen spot close to power lines? The wrong tree, one that grows tall and wide, could become a problem if planted too near to the lines.

Are you planting your tree correctly? Is it too close to power lines? (Alabama Cooperative Extension System)

Alabama Power recommends planting only small trees or shrubs near power lines. The company has a free, online Right Tree in the Right Place guide that can be helpful in choosing the right plant for spots near power lines.

Also be sure you’re not planning to dig too close to underground utilities. If you have questions about planting near underground lines on your property, call the 811 “Call Before You Dig” toll-free line or visit for more information.

“Once you have found the ideal location for your plant, dig the planting hole two to three times the size of the root ball,” Brown said. “That will give the plant plenty of room to establish a good root system. One of the most important things you can do is not plant your new plant too deep.”

When planting, make sure you can see the root flare at the base of the tree or shrub, which should be at ground level, Brown said.

It is also important to “scarify” the root ball. And – no – it has nothing to do with Halloween; it entails taking the plant out of the container and breaking up the roots.

Be sure to cut or break up any roots that are circling. Brown said gardeners shouldn’t be afraid of cutting those roots. “If you skip this step, you may end up with girdled roots, which will lead to a decline or eventual death of the plant,” he said.

Are you planting the right tree in the right place? And save the fertilizing for the spring. (Alabama Cooperative Extension System)

Once the hole has been dug and the root ball has been scarified, place the plant into the hole. In Alabama, many have heavy clay soils, so it is wise to plant a couple of inches above the surrounding ground to help with drainage.

“Backfill the hole, being sure to eliminate any air pockets that may be there,” Brown said. “Water the new plant deeply. It will need to be watered often during its first few weeks.”

Don’t fertilize your fall plantings

Brown said it’s important to avoid fertilizing in the fall, which could result in new growth if warm weather persists. That new, tender growth could be burned by any early-season freezes.

When spring arrives, fertilize plants based on the results of your soil test. Follow the fertilizer instructions to ensure healthy, thriving plants, Brown said.

For more information about fall gardening, visit the Alabama Cooperative Extension System website at or call the local Extension office in your area to connect with a local home grounds, gardens and home pests agent.

A version of this story originally appeared on the Alabama Cooperative Extension System website.