How To Feed Your Trees and Shrubs In The Fall

The pros get superior growth rates feeding this way in the fall.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

The way to feed trees and get really fast growth (and great health) from them is to feed in the fall and not in the spring.

Use A Fertilizer With No Nitrogen

Using a zero based nitrogen fertilizer, you apply both phosphorus and potash to the tree. This means you’d look for something with a zero for the first number. 0–25–25 kind of label.

I’m not overly strict with this. If my local farm store has a 5–30–30 or something like that, I’ll use it.

As long as the first number (nitrogen) is 5 or below, it works well. Your local garden center isn’t likely to carry this — they’re too busy selling you lawn feed with high nitrogen counts. 🙂 So find a local farm supply store.

Feeding trees in the fall

If you don’t want to watch the video, the main idea is that tree roots don’t go dormant but store up energy for growth in the spring. (slowly because its cold but not frozen 2–3 feet below the ground — depending on your location.)

If you give them readily available food, they’ll store more and you’ll get better growth and healthier trees.

But, we don’t give them nitrogen because we don’t want to force them into putting that out to the tree buds.

Think of nitrogen as gasoline for the plant engine — too much at the wrong time and the plant engine goes into high speed. We want our tree/shrub roots idling over and tuning themselves up — not getting into spring racing mode. So no nitrogen for anything but lawn grass in the fall.

How Do I Do This?

There’s a scientific way to set this up but most of us aren’t ever going to go to that trouble. Here’s my practical system.

The diagram above shows the extent of tree roots. If the distance from the trunk to the drip line is X, then the roots go out to 2X. And that’s the area we’re trying to cover in our feeding.
  • I go to the drip line of the tree and then I walk in a circle around the drip line.
  • At step one, I take a small handful of fertilizer and toss it in front and to the outside of me in a wide arc. (You want the bulk of the fertilizer outside of the drip line where the small feeder roots congregate.)
  • Then I walk to the edge of where that fertilizer fell and toss another handful in a wide arc.
  • Then I walk to that next edge and repeat the tossing.
  • When I’ve followed the outline of the drip line and I’m back to the beginning, I’m done.
  • So it could take three handfuls or ten depending on how big your tree/shrub is.

Do This Instead To Save On Fertilizer

If you want to cut this back a bit (because it does use more than you think possible), then you can skip every second tossing.

In other words, toss and walk 10 steps instead of 5. The tree will still get fed more than it would have otherwise (and be happier) but you’re not feeding as much.

If this is your first time feeding trees this way and particularly if you’re feeding young trees, I’d recommend you do the “saving” system above. If you make a mistake, the tree will shrug it off. And if in doubt, feed less than this. More isn’t good when it comes to feeding trees.

But For Young Trees and Shrubs — Important!

A really small tree (newly planted) only gets two handfuls. One on each side of the tree. Same for shrubs. One to each side of the bush.

Caution! Spread it out evenly and broadly. Concentrating it in small space will burn/kill tender roots.

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Five Important Guidelines for Pruning Bushes

Pruning bushes is like many other gardening skills, you get to learn the basic cuts and then you apply them.

The first step is to understand the two basic cuts and what they do for and to your plant.

Once you understand these, then you can prune darn near anything in your shrub garden by following a few simple rules.

Second Guideline: What Shrubs To Prune In The Spring

If the shrub blooms in the early spring (e.g. lilacs) then the buds are formed during the summer. The buds then overwinter on the branch coming alive in the spring.

This means we prune spring blooming plants right after they have finished blooming or within a few weeks of the blooms finishing.

Note: You can prune a spring blooming shrub in the winter but understand you’ll be removing flower buds.

Third Guideline: What Plants To Prune In The Fall

If the shrub blooms in summer or fall, it is blooming on buds it produced in the same growing season. So we prune those shrubs in the winter when the plant is dormant.

Those are the two major rules for pruning shrubs. (Blooms in the spring, prune it right after blooming. Blooms in summer/fall, prune in winter while it is dormant)
As an extra hint, you do want to feed your woody plants in the fall and here’s the scoop on this.

Fourth Guide: What Do You Want To Do With Your Shrub

You’ve watched the video so you know the two kinds of cuts and what they do. You know that a thinning cut is going to remove growth and a heading cut thicken up growth.

The question then is what do you want to do with your shrub? Open it up so more light gets into it? Thicken it up so more blooms are produced?

It’s impossible for any article to describe each condition for pruning bushes in every garden, for every plant.

The deal is you have to know whether you want to thicken or thin.

Fifth Guide: Step By Step Directions

The old hard and fast guidelines we all follow for pruning shrubs are:

  • Remove all dead branches first.
  • Remove all really thin and weak branches (in other words, at every part of the shrub there will be average sized branches or shoots and weaker ones. Remove the weaker ones.
  • Remove all crossing branches (those that are rubbing the bark off each other -remove the weaker or the one going inward toward the center of the plant)

Those three suggestions will help keep your shrub looking good every spring.


You’re going to be hesitant about pruning bushes the first few times you try. Simply remember the two kinds of cuts and every time you’re about to remove wood, ask if you’re trying to thin out the growth or increase the growth.

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