Watering is key to planting trees in the fall

DES MOINES — Iowans who hope to do some tree planting yet this fall still likely have a couple of weeks to get the chore done, but given the long-running drought, those new seedlings will need plenty of water.

Mark Runkel, a forest health technician with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says we may be able to plant trees into November — though it all depends on the weather and how soon the bitter cold temperatures arrive.

“Really, you could plant anytime in the fall, just before the ground freezes,” Runkel says. “So after we start seeing leaves fall, and after we start seeing trees start to go dormant, all the way up to before freeze, it’s pretty much a good time to plant those trees.” It’s important to pick a species of tree that matches your site’s growing conditions, things like soil type, drainage, available growing space, and full sun or shade.

You can’t plant it and forget it either, as Runkel says it’ll need regular waterings. “You should be watering, especially a new tree like that, you could water it twice a week,” Runkel says. “But really, you want to simulate at least a one-inch rain. A lot of times what I’ll do, if I planted a new tree in my yard, I’ll walk out and I’ll feel the soil around it, and if it feels damp, then it’s probably okay. If it feels a little bit dry, then I’ll add some water to it.”

Don’t set out the garden hose and let it run for an hour, as that’s just wasting water. Runkel says there’s a simple trick for watering a tree gradually and sufficiently.

“A lot of times what we’ll do is, we’ll just get a five-gallon bucket and then we’ll drill a small hole in the side of it,” Runkel says, “and then when you are watering your trees, you can actually just take that five-gallon bucket with that hole pointed at the trunk of the tree and then slowly let that water drain out.”

Runkel says virtually all species of trees should be safe for planting in Iowa right now, whether they’re small seedlings or larger, more established trees with a big root ball.

“I typically recommend planting trees in the fall, because once they’re starting to go dormant, they’ll start to send out some of those roots to establish themselves,” Runkel says. “Then when spring comes, and we get all of that snowmelt and we get all of those spring rains, it’s going to be a really great environment for that tree to be able to come out of its dormancy and start putting more those roots out.”

Before doing any digging, call Iowa One Call at 811 to locate any underground utilities. For more tips, visit: www.iowadnr.gov/Conservation/Forestry/Urban-Forestry