Fall is one of my favorite times of year. Despite the fact that the gardening season is coming to an end, the fall brings beautiful foliage, crisp, cool air, and the last of the harvest. It also brings some great benefits for planting trees. While most of us consider spring the prime season for planting anything, planting trees in the fall does have its advantages.
Trees planted in the fall have the advantage of utilizing their energy for root growth instead of the growth of foliage. But, it is often difficult to find quality stock in the fall. Which is why we won’t be planting our small orchard this fall, but instead next spring. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t plant in the fall, in fact it can be the preferred season.
Advantages of Planting Trees in The Fall
Plants and trees begin to become dormant in the fall, which can make it a great time to plant because instead of energy being spent on growing foliage, your tree can spend its energy on more important things like, root establishment. It can also mean less work for you. Here are a few advantages of fall planting.
Less Water Requirements
Watering… it’s my nemesis. Especially this year, water has been a huge need on our homestead. We haven’t had a ton of moisture at all this summer. The ground is dry and everything is suffering from lack of water.
But usually in the fall we have a lot more wet weather. Usually…. That means less requirements of going to water the trees myself. Plus, the weather is cooler and the days are shorter so when they are watered (by nature or yourself) the moisture doesn’t burn off near as quickly.
Granted, they still need water until the ground starts to freeze. So, if you have an unusually dry fall, you’re still going to need to water them. But, not as often due to the cooler weather and shorter days.
Less Stress on the Tree
Do you get stressed out when you move? I know I do. Imagine how it is for a plant…. And when we plant in the spring, they are soon bombarded with the sultry heat of summer. Trying to grow up, grow foliage, and establish their roots.
The fall can be a lot less stressful on plants (though, it doesn’t seem to matter what season we move in, it’s still stressful). The heat of summer is over, so they don’t have to worry about growing foliage or growing up. They can simply begin establishing roots.
In the spring, we’re all anxiously, and generally impatiently, waiting for the soil to warm up enough that we can work the soil and finally get out in the garden. But in the fall? The soil is actually warmer than the spring. It’s been warmed up all summer long.
The warm soil makes it easier for you (less trying to work the soil if it’s already warm) and less work for the tree. Warmer soil allows the tree to successfully establish its roots and gain some nutrients before going dormant when it gets cold.
Disadvantages of Fall Planting
Fall planting can definitely be advantageous. Many experts believe it’s superior to spring planting. But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come without risks and disadvantages. Weather can often change more rapidly, early frosts can damage or even destroy your trees, and your gardening zone should always be a consideration when deciding whether to plant in the fall.
Less Stock Available
A lot of places don’t have bare root stock available in the fall at all. Even if they do, it’s usually less quality stock than that available in the summer. If you’re wanting a good, large, quality selection, you’re probably going to have to wait until spring to plant.
Us, for instance… we want to purchase orchard trees. But the nursery we plan to purchase from only ships out root stock in the spring. So, while we can order now for next spring, we can’t get our stock until then… we have to wait.
Winter Damage Before Trees are Established
Around here our first frost can happen anywhere from October 1 to November 1. And every single year it’s slightly different. And sometimes we have an overly hot Indian summer that makes it as unbearable out as it was all summer until the day we have to turn on the furnace.
If you don’t get your trees in early enough to avoid a damaging frost, they could be toast come spring. But, as long as you plant them early enough in the season and protect them if necessary, they should be okay.
Increased Pest Problems
But the bugs are all dead or dying!! I know. But you know what’s out looking for delicious trees to munch? Mice, rats, rabbits and… deer. More so than in the spring and summer when there is an abundance of food sources available.
This isn’t to say that it’s a lost cause, it isn’t. But you need to protect your new trees with guards to avoid damage. You might even want to fence them off from the deer population if they’re a problem in the fall and winter months where you live. Here they come out of the woods on the side of our property where the orchard will be, so we definitely need to consider some added protection.
Best Time to Plant Trees in The Fall
Your gardening zone is a great thing to keep in consideration when planning your fall planting. If you live in an area where it’s likely your ground will be frozen by mid to late October fall planting probably isn’t for you. But, if you want to chance it, you can. You just need to make sure you pick hardy varieties and protect your stock.
Late August Through Mid October
For most of us late August through mid-October is the best time to plant trees for a fall planting. You want the weather to be cooling off, but you don’t want to risk frost damage. So, you simply plan accordingly.
Generally speaking, you want to plant them around 6 weeks before your first expected frost to give them time to establish their roots.
Avoid it being too late in the season
It is said that as long as the trees in your area still have some leaves, you can plant. But… I still would err on the side of caution. As long as your soil stays at 50°F or higher, you’re good to go. However, if you plant too late you run the risk of an unhealthy tree that will eventually stop growing. However, there are a few ways to try to help it along if you do accidentally plant too late. Simply fertilize, water, and watch it for disease and pests to help boost its growth first thing in the spring and hope for the best.
How to Plant Trees in The Fall
Just like planting trees any time of year, or doing anything else, really. It all starts with a plan. Then, you go from there. The steps and needs are pretty much the same year round. But, here are the basics.
Planning simply means picking the best spot for your tree. You’ll want to take into consideration the sun, the soil composition, and the water (standing water and growing things don’t typically mix well).
You’ll also want to consider the size of your mature tree. Make sure it has room to grow, room for roots, and that you have room to space your trees out appropriately. While fruit trees can be pruned to be a little smaller and they can be planted within the same hole to reduce space needs. You still need to plan it all out and make sure it’s going to work before you start digging up the yard. You’ll also want to call 811 before you start digging. No one wants to put a shovel into the electric line, after all….
Choosing Your Trees
Like I said, a lot of places don’t have a large variety in the fall like the do in the spring. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t find quality stock. Some nursery’s (like Stark Bro’s) do offer fall stock. And some local nursery’s also do. You just have to do your homework.
The available trees are probably going to be limited, but you may be able to find some of your chosen varieties now and plant the rest in the spring when there is more available. It all just depends on what you can find and what you’re looking for.
Planting is the same whether it’s in the fall, spring, summer, winter, whenever. Though… I don’t see us planting anything in the ground in the winter….
The basics are this: You’ll want to dig a hole twice as wide and just as deep as your stock. Score the sides if your soil is more clay-like. Add some compost around the tree. Gently place the soil back and water your tree. I do have some more detailed instructions and tips for you coming up. But for now, dig, score, compost, put the soil back and mulch, mulch, mulch.
Mulching trees is important. You want your mulch to be about 3 to 6 inches deep and about 2-3 feet in diameter around the tree. The mulch helps keep the moisture locked in and keeps the soil warm so that the trees roots can do their thing. However, be mindful when you’re mulching that you do not get the mulch directly up against the tree. Leave a little space (a few inches) between your tree and the mulch you lay down.
You will also want to protect your tree, not only from pests like rabbits and other rodents but from the cold weather and sunburn. Yes, your tree can sunburn in the winter. Which means placing a collar around the base of your tree after it is planted.
What Trees Can You Plant in The Fall?
Not all trees can be successfully planted in the fall. Some trees that take longer to establish are best left to spring planting. But there are plenty of species that can be successfully planted in the fall. These are generally trees that have shallow, fibrous root systems instead of trees, like my favorite the willow tree, that have less roots with larger systems.
Some trees that do really well with fall planting are cold hardy apple and peach trees, American persimmon, maple trees, buckeyes, crabapples and pines and spruce trees.
Obviously this isn’t a definitive list. But, these are some great trees to consider for your homestead this fall!
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