When to Plant Trees – Spring vs Fall

Featured Photo Credit: Jean Carr, Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island

When to plant trees?  Should it be spring, or should it be fall?  It’s a question many new gardeners ask themselves.  And with good reason.  When you plant a tree, you’re not just sticking something in the ground, you’re making an investment, not only in your money and time, but in your future.  

The majesty and beauty of trees cannot be denied.  Even my Mother, a self-proclaimed brown thumb, loved trees.  But trees are much more than just eye candy.  They offer shade from the sun and protection from the wind.  They become havens for wildlife, and they give your yard a sense of movement and life.  

Another plus, trees can also increase the value of your property.  

As with any investment, you want to provide your tree the best opportunity to grow and flourish.  So, to understand how to meet your tree’s needs, it’s important you know the difference between planting in the spring vs the fall.  With this in mind, let’s take a look at when to plant your tree.  

When to Plant Trees

According to Davey Tree, “a good rule is to plant at least four to six weeks before either the extreme conditions of winter or summer are expected to arrive in your area”.    

Both spring and fall boast milder weather, which will benefit your young tree as it starts to establish its roots.  Reviewing the pros and cons of both seasons, as well as taking into account a few other considerations, will help you decide the best time to plant your tree.

Pros and Cons of Spring vs Fall

Spring Tree Planting

Pros – spring is the time when people emerge from the confines of winter.  They’re ready and excited to tackle their yard and its planting projects.  New trees require frequent watering.  In spring, you may have more energy to meet your tree’s needs.  Too, nurseries stock up in the spring, so you may find a greater selection of plants.

Cons – with a spring planting, you chance the weather turning too hot, too quickly, which can result in your tree drying out and dying.  Also, in summer, new trees pull double duty, needing to focus their efforts on both their roots and their leaves.  

Fall Tree Planting

Pros –  temperatures typically cool in the fall, which will encourage your tree to focus on root growth, since it’s canopy will be going into dormancy.  Establishing roots is especially important for a young tree.  Too, fall tends to be rainier, so there’s less chance of experiencing a drought.  Not only that, with cooler temperatures, trees lose less water through transpiration throughout the day.  Wetter weather coupled with less water loss may mean less watering work on your part.  Lastly, you may find some end-of-season bargains at nurseries looking to unload their stock.  

Cons – come fall, after a summer of tending to your yard, planting and caring for a new tree may seem more chore-like.  Establishing a tree requires some work, and you may not have the energy for it come fall.  And there’s always a risk of an early frost hitting before your tree has established its roots – especially if you plant a bit later in the season.  Once the ground freezes, enough water cannot reach the roots, increasing the chances of your new tree drying out and dying.  

Consider Your Hardiness Zone

The hardiness zone you live in can also determine the best time to plant your tree.

In colder climates, zones 1 – 3,consider planting in early spring.  Summers are shorter and cooler and winters hit earlier and harder in these temperature zones.  There may not be enough time in the fall for your tree to establish its roots before the ground freezes.  

For moderate zones, 4 – 8, think late summer/early fall.  This gives your tree enough time to strengthen its roots. 

With warm climates, zones 9 – 11, plant in fall or late fall.  Summers come on hard and fast in these zones and a spring planting may not give your tree enough time to establish itself before the hot summer sun hits.

Their Types Affect When to Plant Trees

Lastly, the type of tree and how it arrives can affect your tree planting season.  Trees either come in a container, with their roots wrapped in burlap, or with the roots bare and free of soil.   

Bare root trees, because the roots are naked, and can be a bit more delicate and may have more difficulty surviving winter conditions.  With these guys, it’s best to plant them in spring and to plant them as soon as they arrive.

Container and burlap wrapped trees can be planted spring or fall, as long as you give them a good one to two months to get themselves established before extreme heat or cold sets in.  

Deciduous trees (ones that shed their leaves each year) are generally best planted in the fall.  These guys start to drop their leaves and go into dormancy in the fall, so energy can be directed into establishing their roots.

Evergreens and conifers lose water through their leaves throughout winter and can be susceptible to cold weather if their roots are not established.  Plant these guys in either early fall or early spring.  

Tips on How to Plant Trees

Now that you have an idea of seasons, I thought a few tips on planting might be helpful.

  1. When choosing a spot, make sure you’re not going to be digging near any utilities lines.  
  2. Keep in mind the height and width of the tree once mature.  That cute little sapling may look adorable beside your house right now, but will it be so appealing once it grows?  I experienced this myself with a small lilac tree.  It looked great on the corner of the house, but it wasn’t long before it had outgrown the spot.  You don’t want to plant a tree to only have to remove it or cut it down at some later point. 
  3. Dig a shallow, but broad hole, 2-3 times the size of the root ball.  
  4. Stand back and make sure your tree is straight before back-filling in the dirt.  Trust me, there is nothing more frustrating than completing your planting only to realize the tree is leaning to one side and your choice is either to dig it back up or live with a wonky tree, because it won’t suddenly straighten on its own.
  5. It’s best not to significantly amend the soil around the tree, especially if planting in clay soil. Use the dirt, even if it’s not the best soil, that you removed when digging.  It’s okay to mix in a little compost or good soil with the native soil, but you don’t want a completely different soil around the roots.  This can create problems down the road when your tree’s roots expand beyond the amended soil.
  6. If you’re planting a seedling, put a marker on the spot to ensure you don’t accidentally damage it, such as running over it with your lawn mower (been there, done that!). 
  7. If you experience winds, or the trunk is narrow and bendable, think about staking your tree to offer it support and stability.
  8. Once planted, you can add root booster fertilizer to help those roots get established.

In Conclusion

Whether you plant in spring or fall, the main thing to keep in mind is to ensure your tree will have enough time to establish and strengthen its roots before the hot, dry days of summer arrive, or the cold of winter sets in and the ground freezes.  

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