Gardening: Time to Plant Trees & Shrubs

Cary, NC – If early Autumn is the time to plant flowers and fall vegetables, now is the time to start thinking about trees and shrubs.

Autumn Gardening in the Piedmont

It’s not too late to plant some flowers and veggies in the garden. Pansies and violas planted now will make a good show in the spring. Vegetables that need to over-winter can also continue to go in the ground.

The cooler weather and shorter days of October favor plants that want to make roots, not leaves at this time of year. In fact, now is the perfect time to plant trees, shrubs and groundcovers.

Privet grows fragrant flowers in the Spring.


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.

Very useful, shrubs. Don’t get as much attention from gardeners as flowers and trees. Shrubs might be the Rodney Dangerfield of the plant world.

Here are a few of my favorite shrubs for your Cary garden with some notes about how to use them. Put a couple on your fall planting list.

  • 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.
  • More 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. Camelia 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 Winter will set them up for a strong start next Spring.


Autumn is the season to plant trees in the South.

The most important thing to keep in mind is the placement of the tree and its eventual size. Don’t plant a really tall tree (like a White Oak) right next to your house.

Here are a few favorite trees for gardens across the Carolina Piedmont.

  • 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.
  • Southern Magnolia – Beautiful leathery leaves and amazing flowers. Magnolias can grow quickly and need space.
  • Willow – Willow trees are good if you have a moist spot in your garden that’s too wet for other trees.
  • River Birch – River 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.


Ground Covers

If shrubs are the Rodney Dangerfield of plants, ground covers are Cinderella. Totally forgotten. But 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 or Fall.
  • 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 and photos by Hal Goodtree. The Gardening column on CaryCitizen is sponsored by Garden Supply Company on Old Apex Road in Cary.

1 reply
  1. Terri
    Terri says:

    Thanks for the tips! I am redoing my foundation plantings and appreciate these ideas. I also really like lorapetalum – I see a lot of it around Town and plan to include it in my garden. I was recently in Seattle and saw black mondo grass for the first time – it is a gorgeous contrast!

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