Many people wait until spring to plant new trees, but if you already know what kind of tree you want to add to your yard, autumn is actually a better time to plant—if not the best time.
This may be surprising since spring has become the default season when it comes to planting. After a colorless and perhaps blustery winter, it’s understandable that people are more excited to refresh their landscapes with new vegetation in spring.
It also seems logical that in spring, trees have all summer to grow in preparation for the ravages of winter.
Fall, in contrast, generally brings crisp cool air, turning and dropping foliage, and the last of the vegetable garden harvest. Can you really plant a new tree and expect it to survive the cold?
The answer is yes!
While the best time to plant varies from region to region, fall is a better time to put in new fruit trees and ornamental trees if you live in an area that has distinct seasons. (Areas with moderate, consistent temperatures year-round can usually plant in any season.)
Many people worry that delicate saplings can’t survive winter, but that isn’t the case. In fact, it’s safe to plant trees until the ground is frozen solid (usually after the first hard frost).
Read more: Find First and Last Frost Dates Accurately With This Custom Planting Calendar
What if there’s snow on the ground? If you can stick your shovel in the soil, you’re probably still okay to plant as long as you water and mulch your tree properly. (But I’ll cover that in more detail below.)
While it might seem like your tree has suddenly stopped growing, it simply means your tree has gone dormant (a winter hibernation of sorts). This “sleep” state slows down the tree’s growth and metabolism, but it’s still very much alive and healthy (even if it doesn’t quite look like it).
And, I know this from personal experience: I planted 16 fruit trees in my orchard in late September one year (zone 6b), and they’ve continued to thrive.
Here’s why you should plant a tree in fall and exactly how to do it.
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- Advantages of planting trees in fall
- Disadvantages of planting trees in fall
- When and how to plant trees in the fall
Advantages of planting trees in fall
Less stress on the tree
Trees planted in spring have a lot of pressure on them: They need to grow new leaves and new roots, all at the same time. Photosynthesis and root development require sugar reserves that are generally stored in the roots, which means spring-planted trees go into these challenges as soon as they hit the ground.
Moreover, the heat of summer can be stressful on a young tree when it hasn’t had enough time to develop a strong root system, making it more susceptible to pests and diseases.
Trees planted in fall, however, get to enjoy the milder weather with none of the pressures of growing up too fast. They can focus their energy on growing more roots, rather than growing new foliage.
If there’s a common misconception about fall planting versus spring planting, it’s about soil temperature.
In spring, we’re anxiously waiting for the ground to thaw and the soil to be “workable” before we can finally get out in the garden and start planting.
But in fall? The soil is actually warmer then than in spring. That’s because it’s been warmed up all summer long and stays warm—long enough for a tree to establish roots and absorb nutrients before it goes dormant. Roots start growing as soon as they touch moist soil and continue growing as long as the soil temperature stays above 45°F (a baseline that can extend into winter with a good layer of mulch).
By the time spring rolls around and coaxes the first new shoots to emerge, your fall-planted tree already has an actively growing root system in place.
Warm soil is also easier for you to work your shovel in, and the ground usually has fewer weeds in fall to contend with (assuming you’ve been keeping up with them).
Less watering needed
While all new trees (even drought-tolerant trees) need plenty of water to become established, the task of watering is much less onerous in fall since it usually comes with more wet weather (along with cooler temperatures and shorter days that keep moisture in the soil for much longer).
Newly planted trees need consistent watering right up until the ground freezes. That means you still need to water them if you end up with an unusually dry fall, but not as often (or as much) as you would if you’d planted in spring (going into the heat of summer).
Disadvantages of planting trees in fall
Less stock available
While many nurseries dig their bareroot trees in fall, they tend to store most of their stock through winter and sell them in spring. (You may have experienced this if you’ve ordered trees in the fall but didn’t get them for several months.) And oftentimes, the selection of trees at your local brick-and-mortar is smaller at the end of summer.
If you want to plant in fall, however, all is not lost. You can try an online nursery like FastGrowingTrees.com, which offers a wide selection year-round and has frequent seasonal sales. I’ve actually ordered from them in the fall, and received better quality trees since they didn’t suffer from heat stress during shipping. (That’s my 7-foot-tall peach tree in the image above!)
Increased pest problems
I know what you’re thinking… but the bugs are all dead or dying! Unfortunately, your yard probably has other pests that are on the hunt for delicious new trees to snack as their food sources start to wane.
In my area, deer are prevalent in fall but we also deal with rabbits, pack rats, and other rodents that love to feed on the bark of young trees, causing scarring or girdling.
If you have critters like these in your neighborhood, be sure to protect your trees with tree guards or trunk protectors (like these) to avoid damage, or put up tall fencing to keep deer away from new trees.
Winter damage before tree roots are established
Weather can be unpredictable, and you might end up with an early cold snap or at worst, a blizzard just a week after you plant your tree.
If you want to protect saplings from winter damage, the most important thing (aside from mulching your trees as soon as you plant them) is to keep them well watered, especially right before a hard freeze. The worst part of winter is not the cold temperatures, but the damage caused by desiccation (roots drying out).
Be sure to keep your trees watered every week until the ground freezes. I recommend using watering bags like these ones if you have multiple trees to water—just fill ‘er up and the water seeps out gradually, eliminating pooling or runoff.
When and how to plant trees in the fall
When is a good time to plant trees in fall? A basic rule of thumb is to look at the trees in your area—if they still have leaves, you can plant your tree.
Generally, anytime between mid-August and mid-October is a good time to plant a tree, though in some areas, the ideal window can stretch into November or December. If you aren’t sure, stick a soil thermometer in the ground: If the temperature is consistently above 45°F, you’re good to plant.
There are some exceptions to planting a tree in fall, however:
- Alabama: While fall is a good time to plant, winter (November through March) is even better.
- Florida: Planting in the rainy season from May to October is your best bet, though any month is good.
- Georgia: Late fall to early winter (November to December) is an ideal time to plant a tree.
- Louisiana: Like its southern neighbors, November to December is the best time to plant.
- Tennessee: You’ll want to plant in fall to early winter (November to December) for best results.
If the ground is frozen, you’ll need to wait until early spring before planting trees in your yard. And while it’s usually okay to plant after the first snow falls (snow is a good insulator, after all, and provides moisture), a bigger worry in your climate might be ice or harsh winter winds—so use your best judgment.
If the weather doesn’t look like it’ll cooperate, consider heeling in your bareroot tree until early spring. Container trees can be treated like houseplants and overwintered indoors (just be sure to acclimatize them before planting).
Once you’ve determined the best time to plant your new tree, here’s how to do it.
1. Match the right tree to the right planting site.
Choose a tree (from FastGrowingTrees.com or your favorite nursery) and pay attention to its needs (sunlight, water, soil drainage) as well as its growth habit (height, spread, deciduous versus evergreen).
Do you have garden beds or a septic field nearby that might be affected by mature tree roots? Do you want a fast-growing tree for privacy screening? Are you looking for shade, color, or fragrance? Do you want pollen, sap, or a litter of fall leaves all over your driveway each year? These are some things to think about before adding a new tree to your landscape.
2. If planting in grass, remove the sod.
Cut the surface vegetation with a shovel, then work the blade beneath the grass and lift it off, one clump at a time. I like to bury these clumps (grass side down) deep in my planting hole; the grass will simply decompose, adding organic matter to the soil.
3. Dig an appropriate hole.
If you don’t know where your utilities are buried, be sure to call 811 before you dig so you don’t unintentionally ram your shovel into an underground utility line.
For trees planted in the middle of a lawn, lay down a tarp so you have a place to hold all the soil you dig up.
Dig a hole about twice the diameter of the root ball and no deeper than necessary to let the tree stand at the same level as the surrounding soil (or a little higher, if the tree needs to be planted on a mound to allow for better drainage).
The base of the tree should not be lower than the surrounding soil level, since pooling water around the trunk can lead to rot.
Plant the tree right in the native soil—do not amend it with fertilizer or other nutrients, since this will prevent the roots from growing beyond the confines of the amended soil into the native soil.
I know this is contrary to a lot of the traditional gardening advice out there, but recent research over the past decade has found fertilized planting holes to be detrimental to trees. So, no need to do that anymore!
If you want to improve the soil, a better idea is to side dress the tree with a layer of compost over a wide area (out to the drip line, at the very least) so the nutrients sink in evenly over the entire growing zone. Compost on its own also makes a good mulch (as you can see in my image below).
4. Water and mulch your tree.
A new tree needs a lot of water to get started—more than an established tree needs. In the fall, I use a 20-gallon watering bag once or twice a week until it begins to rain more consistently.
The amount of water needed will depend on your average daytime and nighttime temperatures, how humid or dry your climate is, the type of soil you have, and other environmental factors. You’ll want to water when the top 4 to 6 inches of soil feels dry and crumbly.
After the initial watering, apply a 3-inch layer of organic mulch about 3 feet in diameter around the tree. Spread the mulch right up to (but not directly against) the tree trunk. What you definitely do not want to do is make a “volcano” of mulch around the trunk, as this will hold moisture and destroy the bark at the crown.
Oh, and another advantage of the watering bags I keep talking about? They protect the trunk from rodents and other pests and also keep the tree from getting sunscald (sunburn). Wait, sunburn? Yes, it can still happen, even in winter!
5. Don’t forget to water year-round.
Continue watering your tree as long as the air and soil temperatures remain above 40°F and when there is no snow cover. This means that in some areas, you might need to water your tree in winter during dry spells; just because your tree is dormant doesn’t mean it isn’t growing! (The first winter after I planted all my trees, I actually had to water them once a month since we barely had any rain.)
Be consistent with watering and your tree will thank you in spring!