Fall is the perfect time for so many things: hayrides, pumpkin pie and…planting shrubs? Yeah, we’re still working on that last one. But it is true that autumn’s crisp temperatures and frequent moisture make it the best incubation period for young tree roots. Growing trees and shrubs can get used to their new location and establish themselves, without the stress from heat. And the cooler weather encourages trees to focus on their roots, instead of leafing out above.
Of course, if you’re a horticulture newbie, planting your first tree or shrub can be intimidating. This guide from The University of Nebraska Extension should get you through the basics of digging and planting.
In general, it includes digging a hole twice as wide but slightly shallower than the root ball. Then fill the hole with soil and add mulch around the base to keep the surrounding soil nice and moist. Next, stake the tree to protect it while it gets a good root structure going. Nothing to it!
That just leaves what to plant. To help you make this crucial decision, we’ve picked out the hardiest, showiest and best plants money can buy—the kind of beauties that will vault your lawn to floral perfection once spring rolls around. Here are our top choices.
If You’re Looking for Convenience: Redbud
This low-maintenance showstopper is kind of like the Miss Congeniality of trees. It’s beautiful, but also easy-going. Redbuds do well in all but the most southern and northern US residences, letting loose a shower of snowy, pink blossoms in spring. As a smallish tree, they grow no larger than 20 to 30 feet, making them a good choice to plant near the home or in another close-knit spot. They liked to be mulched occasionally, and pruned once a year to trim away dead growth. Other than that, you can pretty much leave them on their own—and enjoy beautiful, delicate blossoms all spring for minimal effort!
For Something a Little Bit Different: American Fringe Tree
Looking for something a little less conventional? The fringe tree is a beautiful North American native with feathery white blooms and bright yellow fall foliage. Essentially, this one is a stunner all year long. Fringe tree likes slightly acidic soil and a moist, sunny location to flourish. Under ideal conditions, it can grow to 20 feet tall. It’s also a somewhat wider tree, so make sure to plant it somewhere with room to spread out. The female trees produce black berries that birds love, so it’s a great choice if you’re looking to get a visit from some local wildlife.
For Drought-prone Areas: Flowering Quince
Choosing trees and shrubs for dry, arid climates is tricky, sure, but certainly not impossible. Flowering quince has creamy pink blossoms and yellow crabapple-like fruit that belies its inherent drought-tolerance. This tough little shrub prefers moderate to light water, making it ideal for homes with watering restrictions or in dry, arid climates where water conservation is a concern. It can handle a variety of soil conditions as well and will tolerate moderate shade, so it’s both showy and tough—one of our favorite combinations!
For Tiny Yards and Apartments: Citrus Trees
A tree in a pot? You bet! Oranges, lemons and limes come in dwarf varieties that make lovely patio or balcony inhabitants—as long as you remember to bring them inside when the weather gets cold! To plant one, use a special citrus potting soil and place in a large, well-draining pot somewhere where it will get plenty of sunlight. Citrus needs at least eight hours of sunlight per day to flourish, so make sure to choose an especially sun-drenched spot in your yard. Water infrequently, keeping the soil moist but not drenched. Fertilize regularly with a commercial citrus mix.
For Shady Yards: Allegheny Serviceberries
Think of serviceberries as lilacs’ cooler, hipper cousin. Congenial and easy-to-grow with dense, snowy flowers, serviceberries also feature attractive fall foliage and decorative bark that makes them easy on the eyes all year long. True to their name, serviceberries produce small, edible fruits—a huge draw for local birds. And, of course, they can tolerate moderate shade, so they do well as a companion to densely-treed yards.
For a True Showstopper: Southern Magnolia
Long the star of southern lore, there’s ample reason for the magnolia’s long-standing reputation. Large showy flowers crown the magnolia in bloom, atop shiny deep-green foliage that offers a bit of shade on a hot day. The key to growing magnolia is to choose a cultivar that fits your yard’s conditions. There are cold-hardy varieties and compact varieties—essentially there’s one for any growing condition you need to meet. Plant young trees in moist, slightly-acidic, well-drained soil and supplement with at least one inch of water per week until the tree has had time to establish itself.
Whatever you plant, make sure to give it plenty of water the first months after planting. Young roots need lots of moisture since they may not be able to reach down to more remote water reserves. Water yours frequently and you can look forward to showy beautiful springs for years to come. Now you just have to make it through winter!