Fall planting: should you fertilize now?

The crisp weather... the golden leaves swirling in sudden gusts of chill breezes. Yes: fall is definitely here, and for landscapers and gardeners, this is that special time when we devote our outdoor time to planting... with visions of spring and summer blooms dancing in our heads!

QUESTION: "We're in the middle of fall planting and we have a question. Should we fertilize as we plant?" – M & P.

ANSWER: In my opinion, there is really no reason to fertilize in the fall since the sap is ready to go down and the plant is preparing to go into dormancy. However, it is an excellent time to build up the soil around the plant by mixing potash, compost or other organic matter into the soil. Don't just pile it up next to the trunk however. Reason: It could possibly "burn" the plant or attract unwelcome bugs.

QUESTION: "We really enjoy your column. I have a question about trees for you. I am looking for a tree to shade a patio. I was thinking about an ash, either green or purple. My dad has an ash, I think it's a green ash and it did great for about 20 years. Now it breaks limbs every time it storms. So I'm unsure about planting an ash. I want something fairly hardy, able to withstand storms, as I don't want branches falling on my house. Any ideas would be appreciated." – Pete & Tracy K.

ANSWER: The Ash is a fast grower but is now getting a disease that was brought over from China. This tree I'm afraid seems to be going the same way as the Elm about 40 years ago. I have to ask: Why do you want such a large tree by your patio? Of course there are several choices in large trees that will fit the bill. The one that I would recommend is the fast growing Red Maple "Autumn Blaze" . Once established it grows about 5 foot a year yet it is a strong tree. You can plant a 3-5 foot tree and expect it to be 14 foot tall and about 2 to 3 inch caliper in about three years. I have an alternative suggestion to either Ash or Maple. There are other patio trees that will still provide good shade if trimmed properly like the forest pansy red bud or any of the flowering cherry trees like the ones seen in DC during cherry blossom festival time.

QUESTION: "We recently moved to the Midwest. Can we safely plant in the fall?" – Jerry M.

ANSWER: Yes! Even though the tree or shrub is is going dormant, the roots will continue to grow as long as the soil is warm. As a rule of thumb, you can plant August - October in cold climates, September - October in mild climates, and October - November in warm climates. The roots will become well established by spring. Generally, spring-planted plants grow more slowly than fall-planted plants because the plant focuses on its roots rather than top growth. If you can plant and still have about six weeks before the ground starts freezing, then you can safely fall-plant. Remember to mulch quite generously around the base of the plant.

QUESTION: "What can I use on a sloped area that tends to wash away? It is now full of weeds. Can I plant some type of vegetation that will look nice? There are many ruts so it's impossible to mow. I'm looking for something that is economical and requires little or no maintenance! Thanks for any help." – Pat

ANSWER: Unfortunately you will have to level the soil and start over with a "clean palette" to work with. I believe the ruts will only get larger even with vegetation around them. Once you get the area in good shape you can use any kind of groundcover that thrives in your zone.