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Select the right tree for fall planting in Illinois

photo of tree nursery
Photo credit Nancy Kreith. Container grown trees with drip irrigation at the Morton Arboretum in Northern Illinois.

URBANA, Ill. – After spring, fall is the next best time to plant a tree. When adding trees to the landscape, it’s important to research and make a suitable list of tree species. Select a proper planting location based on mature size, preferred soil conditions, disease and pest resistance, and multi-seasonal interest, says Nancy Kreith, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“While shopping for trees at a garden center, inspect them carefully before purchasing,” Kreith says. “Look to make sure no roots are exposed. Inspect the trunk for damage, such as cankers. Be sure the container or root ball is the appropriate size compared to size of tree canopy and that trees have been watered on a regular basis.”

There are many tree species that do well throughout Illinois’ zones. These trees are appropriate for fall planting and includes native and non-native species:

  • Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioica): This Illinois native grows 60 to 75 feet tall and prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soils. It has fragrant, white flowers in the spring and persistent fruit pods. Pods can be messy, so consider a male cultivar. There are no serious pest problems and the Kentucky Coffee tree is adaptable to urban conditions, tolerating drought and pollution.
  • American elm ‘New Harmony’ (Ulmus americana ‘New Harmony’): Although an Illinois native, this cultivar or another resistant cultivar, should be planted due to risk of Dutch elm disease. This tree grows up to 40 feet tall and prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soil; however, it will tolerate a range in soil pH and is wind and heat tolerant. It features a picturesque vase shape and has a nice yellow fall color. Morton Arboretum offers a list of pest resistant American elms.
  • Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea): This 10- to 30-foot tall Illinois native requires little maintenance and is best transplanted balled and burlapped. It features smooth gray bark, excellent fall color, and slightly fragrant white flowers in mid-spring. Best placement is in full- to part-sun and moist- to dry-conditions with well-drained soil.
  • Redbud (Cercis Canadensis): This Illinois native grows 15 to 30 feet in height  and prefers part sun and rich, moist, well-drained soils. Pink blossoms occur in mid-spring before leaves appear. Seedpods can persist through winter. This tree is naturally short-lived. If dieback occurs, cutting it to the ground encourages sucker growth than can become a substantially-sized tree.
  • White fir (Abies concolor): White fir grows  30 to 50 feet high. This pyramidal evergreen tree that prefers full- to part-sun and moist, well-drained, sandy soils. It is valued for its silvery green foliage and useful for screening or as a specimen tree. It is relatively pest free and performs well in Midwest conditions.
  • Limber pine (Pinus flexilis): This 30- to 50-foot-tall evergreen tree prefers full- to part-sun and moist, well-drained soils. This long-lived species works well as a specimen tree. It is adaptable to dry soils, windy sites and is more tolerant to salt spray than most pines.
  • Serbian spruce (Picea omorika): This evergreen grows 50 to 60 feet high and prefers deep, rich, moist, well drained soils. It tolerates part-shade and urban conditions, except for pollution. It serves as an excellent specimen tree, with dark green needles and contrasting white on the underside.

Consider cultivars bred for certain characteristics. Redbud ‘Lavender Twist’ is a weeping form that reaches 4 to 5 feet high. Serbian spruce 'Sky Trails' has a weeping habit, with blue-green needles and contrasting white underneath. Kentucky coffee tree 'Espresso' features a vase-shape, and its male cultivar will not produce fruit.

Wait until spring to plant trees, such as hemlock, willow, river birch, white oak, bald cypress, ginkgo, sweetgum, magnolia, American hophornbeam, or hornbeam since establishment is often difficult and slow, Kreith says.

For more information about tree selection, please the Illinois Extension tree selector website at

SOURCE: Nancy Kreith, Horticulture Educator, Illinois Extension

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