Fall Gardening: Trees, Shrubs & Groundcover

Cary, NC – Early Autumn is for planting Fall flowers and vegetables. But after the first frost, it’s time to plant trees, shrubs and groundcover plants.

Grow Roots, Not Leaves

Many trees and shrubs you might plant now will have lost their leaves. That’s a good thing. You want your larger plants growing roots during the Winter. The earlier you plants trees and shrubs, the better the root systems that will develop.

Planting a Tree or Shrub

I like to soak the pot containing my new tree or shrub in a tub of water. Add a little soluble fertilizer (like Miracle Gro) for an added bonus.

Dig a hole twice as wide and 1 1/2 times as deep as the container. At this point, I gently remove the plant from the container. Don’t pull it from the trunk or stem. Try to loosen the plant in the container so it slides out. Push from underneath through the drainage holes if necessary.


I make a few slits around the root ball on the sides and across the bottom to help new growth spread out. Through a little fertilizer, Shrub-Tone or bone meal in the hole.

Now, place the root ball in the hole. Add or subtract dirt until the top of the root ball lines up with the level of the dirt in your garden bed. It’s important that the root ball lines up with the level of the dirt; too high and it dries out and dies. Too low, it gets soaked and dies.

Once everything is at the right level and straight, fill in the rest of the hole with garden soil. Pack it down a little and fill in with more dirt.

Water it well. You’re done!

Picking Trees and Shrubs

Two rules:

  • Pick the right tree or shrub for your spot
  • Consider the size of the mature plant

To pick the right tree or shrub, first ask yourself about light conditions. The majority of plants like plenty of sun – at least six hours a day. If you have a shady spot, don’t plant a palm tree or a rose bush. They like sun. Consider instead a dogwood or a hydrangea, shade lovers.

Pay attention to the size of the mature plant. Usually, it will be listed on the label. Make sure you have enough room in the garden for the plants you put in the ground. Conversely, mass smaller shrubs to create some impact. Don’t expect a single rose bush in the back of the bed to add much excitement.

Popular Shrubs

Shrubs are a medium-sized element in the garden. They are useful to give height to a bed and to surround structures like a house or a deck.

Some shrubs are evergreen, others die back in the Winter (deciduous). They can be loose or tight, add a spark of color in Summer or a bit of green in Winter. Some shrubs are fragrant.

Here are a few of my favorite shrubs for your Cary landscape.


Azalea – The Queen of Southern shrubs. Unmatched blooms in Spring create a wall of color. Likes shade and some moisture. Evergreen.

Rosemary – Fragrant, evergreen, fine blue-green needles. The thing I like best about rosemary is that it can take a shearing. That is, you can prune it with an edge, shape it or even venture in simple topiary. Rosemary is very adaptable to sun or shade, prospers in low moisture and neglect. Perfect for my garden.

Butterfly Bush – A deciduous shrub, Butterfly Bush adds color in the height of Summer through Fall with loose, airy spikes of tiny flowers. Butterfly Bush is beloved of, yes, butterflies and insects of many types. A must for a free-flowing garden spot.

Fragrant shrubsBoxwood and Privet are civilized, cooperative evergreen shrubs that are useful around decks and home foundations. Gardenia produces some of the most beautiful fragrance in the garden. Speaking of fragrance, don’t forget Roses, probably the world’s most popular shrub. Camellia is a true Southern favorite that blooms in early Winter, a welcome occurrence in a bleak garden season.

All of the above can be planted starting now. The won’t look like much this Fall, but good root growth over the Fall and Winter will set them up for a strong start next Spring.

Popular Trees

Autumn is the season to plant trees in the South. Planting a tree is not hard. In fact, we made a video called “The Right Way to Plant a Tree.”

Here are a few favorite trees for the Cary homeowner’s garden.


Crepe Myrtle – You see Crepe Myrtles everywhere in Cary, and for good reason: they bloom all Summer long. Small to medium tree, they love the weather in Cary. Love them back.

Purple Leaf Plum – Dark burgundy leaves make a welcome contrast from the dominance of green. Medium size tree, low maintenance.

White Oak – If you have a grove of trees, or a spot a little father from the house, consider a White Oak for your Fall planting. Grows with a straight trunk, nice color in the Fall, hangs onto its brown leaves until Spring. One of the longest living of Eastern trees, that White Oak you plant this Labor Day weekend could be there when the U.S.A. celebrates it’s 500th birthday in 2376.

Dogwood – Beautiful flowers in Spring (and the State Flower of North Carolina). Dogwoods are one of the few trees that thrives in shade. If you have a shady spot that needs some excitement, plant a neat row of Dogwoods.

WillowWillow trees are good if you have a moist spot in your garden that’s too wet for other trees.

Japanese Maple – Smaller, slow-growing tree thrives in shade. Finely cut leaves light up the garden in the Fall.

River BirchRiver Birch also likes it moist. It can tolerate a fair amount of shade as well.

Thuja Giant – These trees are basically evergreen weeds. Perfect for dense screening, e.g from a road or a bothersome neighbor. Thuja Giants grow fast (very fast) and become a wide, thick, dense, tall impenetrable screen of green.

Now is the perfect time to plant some trees. Don’t forget to watch the video.

Ground Covers

Ground covers are the secret to finish out your garden with a verdant floor, covering bare spaces and connecting the elements.


Creeping Juniper – Evergreen, slow growing, Creeping Juniper can take drought and neglect. Has an almost primeval look. Spreads along the ground with branches that root.

Liriope – Excellent for edging beds, Liriope has thick grass-like blades about 9-12 inches. Basically evergreen in North Carolina. Variegated Liriope is a nice variety with green and white striped leaves. Makes a neat and symmetrical cluster. Many varieties send up a nice purple spike of flowers in the Spring.

IvyIvy comes in many varieties with big leaves, small leaves, dark greens, bright greens, yellows and whites. They cover the ground quickly and thrive in shade. But ivy will also cover your house if you let it. Every Spring (late Winter, really), we cut back the ivy to keep it away from structures and trees we don’t want to destroy.

SedgeSedge is a grass that makes a nice border. It grows quickly and forms thick clumps. Thrives in sun or shade. Good beneath trees and in borders.

Black Mondo Grass – A real beauty in the garden, Black Mondo Grass rises about six inches above the ground with fine blades of purple-black grass. Grows slowly but easy to multiply by division. Fond of shadier spots.

Story by Hal Goodtree. Photos: Yellow Rose by Shaeree; Maples Leaves Stanley Zimny; Ivy by Openarms; Boxwood Mike Atkinson; formal garden by Anguskirk

The Gardening Column is sponsored by Garden Supply Company on Old Apex Road in Cary.