feed trees fall

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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3 thoughts on “How To Feed Your Trees and Shrubs In The Fall”

  1. Hello Doug,

    I’ve been cleaning up a garden badly in need of TLC. Should I remove the garden fabric before I lay the 10 layers of newspaper? The garden fabric is so old, it does nothing now everything had grown through it. I don’t mind the extra work. Thank you, Doug, for any help you may provide!

    Marie Keough

  2. Marie, yes, get rid of the garden fabric. I’ve read data suggesting it eliminates O2 absorption by soils and isn’t very helpful. Really does stop organic decomposition and soil improvement. And yeah, newspaper in large quantities isn’t much better for the soil. If you’re creating a pathway – no issue. But if you’re making garden beds or feeding trees, I’d go with a mulch that decomposes and helps the soil. A little more costly but better for the plants. I find a spring weeding and fall cleanup takes care of our treed areas. Hope that’s what you needed to know.

  3. Doug, just seeing your latest posting makes me feel good.
    Here in the north it’s dead winter so no leafing. When the branches move a little you can almost hear them encouraging each other to “get with it before Doug notices their sorry state”.
    I have an old birch tree – the only survivor of several birch leaf miner attacks. The few branches still alive have become a thing of beauty at the edge of my yard. Every season we give it a shake to test its ability to endure another season. I love every one of its few branches and every leaf.
    Thanks Doug

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