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Fall – the Ideal Season for Planting Trees

August 28, 2017

Written by Dave G.

With Labor Day just around the corner, we have reached the traditional end of summer – even if, in some areas at least, hot weather will continue through September. There is nonetheless a sense of an ending. The sun, now lower in the sky, casts longer shadows, and the evenings arrive sooner and sooner. In many places, this change of season is marked by rain, and dry gardens are suddenly moist again, often causing a resurgence of growth.

Many people think spring is the time to do garden jobs, big or small, and there is always a flurry of activity at that time, in gardens and in nurseries. While of course there is a big surge of growth in all our plants then, gardening shouldn’t be just a spring activity. In fact, the fall has always been the time when green-thumb gardeners start work for the next year, doing then what others leave to spring. One of the most important long-term tasks in the garden is tree planting. An investment in the future, trees take time to establish, so we want to get them off to the best start possible. Here is why fall is the ideal season for planting trees – and shrubs too.

5 Reasons to Plant Trees in Fall

The Ground is warm

When we plant a tree, its first job is to establish roots. In fall the tree can put all its efforts into growing roots, and the soil is still warm from summer. In that damp, warm soil, root growth will be rapid, without any energy being wasted on top-growth. At this time of year the roots will quickly spread out into the soil you prepared, anchoring the tree and connecting it to the nutrients it will need when growth returns in spring.

When we plant in spring, the soil is cold and dead. If you live in colder parts of the country, the lower levels may still even be frozen, preventing good drainage. You are planting into a cold, low-oxygen environment, with very little activity from beneficial microbes. All that adds up to a bad place for roots to grow, and those that do can face the risk of rotting. If you leave planting until later, when the soil is warmer, you run the risk of sudden drought and a spring heat-wave – all conditions that threaten newly-planted trees.

A Steady Supply of Moisture

The arrival of fall is often announced by a few days of steady rain. Unlike the thunderstorms of summer, this fall rain re-establishes the moisture levels in the soil, and with cooler air temperatures, it stays in the ground, and doesn’t quickly escape into the atmosphere. As fall advances, regular rain is frequent, so newly-planted trees rarely need any supplementary watering. If you watered well during the planting process, then you can be almost certain that sufficient moisture will be there for those new roots to thrive.

Compare that to spring, where ‘spring droughts’ are common, and more established plants are hungrily sucking water out of the ground. New plants soon begin to struggle for moisture, and with their new foliage growing rapidly, new roots just can’t keep up. You will be out there watering all the time, and the long-term establishment of your trees will suffer – or even worse, you could see them dying back and declining.

The combination of moisture and warm soil encourages vigorous root growth and sturdy establishment of your new trees.

Cooler Air Temperatures

With fall planting, the branches of your tree have stopped growing for the year. Even if the leaves have not yet fallen, in most trees the buds are already developed, and simply resting until winter cold prepares them to grow again in spring. During summer, trees move stored nutrients down into the roots, and those nutrients are available to feed the new roots, without competition from growing buds up above. Even in evergreens, the lower air temperatures typical of fall keep growth slow or non-existent, so all the attention of your trees and shrubs can go into root development.

That development will continue even into early winter, as roots of plants are adapted to keep growing in much lower temperatures than the top growth. In warmer areas there will be some continuation of root growth right through the winter months, so by spring your trees will be fully established. Rapid growth of foliage and flowers can happen with no hold-ups from weak root systems.

If you live in a cold area, you may think that newly-planted trees are more likely to be killed in winter. That is not true for deciduous trees at all, and even evergreens will thrive if you give them a good watering just before freeze up.

Well-established by Spring

If you have planted in spring before, you will know already what a rush it can be. A rush to get those trees in before the weather heats up, and the soil starts to dry. What looks like vigorous growth can soon become limp and wilted, and even die, if the roots can’t supply all the water needed.

Trees that have been planted in fall will come into spring already established in your garden. The roots will have spread wide and deep, ready to supply the upper growth with everything it needs. The result? Maximum growth in the first year, rather than a first year spend struggling to survive. If you want your trees to get off to a flying start, don’t wait until spring to get them into the ground.

There Are Bargains Around

This last reason has very little to do with the plants, but our pocketbooks are important too! Most nurseries want to clear their stock before winter, so sale prices are easily found, and if you plant several trees, such as for a screen or hedge, the savings are substantial. Free shipping is often included, so what looks like a higher price turns out to be a real bargain, once you factor that in.

There is something else too. Nurseries price their stock in spring, based on its size. By fall, the plants have grown, but the prices have not, so that ‘4-foot’ plant may be closer to 5-feet by now, yet the price will not have gone up.

 

There are so many positives for planting your trees in fall, that it’s hard to see why everyone doesn’t do it. Now is the time to get ahead of the game. Tuck your trees into the ground in fall, instead of delaying till spring, and see the positive results you get. You will be an instant convert to fall planting.