Fall is for planting they say when folks talk about shade trees. But is it? When is the best time to plant a tree? In this blog I will cover tree planting times and other particulars, the drawbacks and good points of these decisions.
So is fall the best season to plant a tree? Of course like so many questions it depends on many factors. Where you live (latitude) is a big part of this equation. I reside in Southern California and Southern Arizona. Both mild climes by any standard, but the Arizona property is at a higher elevation (4500ft) and gets cold sooner than the Southern California location. In Alaska, for another example, the planting seasons are much shorter or narrower as the onset of cold weather can be sooner in the calendar.
I think it is important to consider things from a “tree perspective”; or when is it best to plant from a tree’s perspective. Planting is not only the act of installing the tree correctly (see other GP blogs posts for correct planting technique) but it is also an acclimatization process. It is a good idea to purchase your tree beforehand and give it time to get used to the temperatures, light levels and water in the new site. Most fall planted trees are in containers or B&B which requires we do root inspections in order to not plant a tree that has root defects. These root inspections include removing all the old growing medium and root washing (search the GP blog for root washing). Locally sources fall planted trees will automatically be acclimated to reduced light and cooler temperatures. In fact if you plant a deciduous tree it may already be preparing to drop leaves. Fall planted trees still need root ball moisture to establish and thus will need some irrigation, but fall is also a time of reduced water use. One benefit to fall planting is that the trees will grow some roots over the winter and be ready for a big growth push in the spring. They will be partially established and take full advantage of longer days, moist soil and warming temperatures.
What about winter planting? I have a colleague that described in great detail his ambition to move to California and seek academic employment after not getting a $.50/hour raise at his landscaping job during a long stint of chipping ice in Minnesota to plant conifers in frozen ground. My colleague just retired from a nice career in Cooperative Extension, but that winter planting helped him make the move. You can plant trees in frozen soil but winter kill is a thing and the success rate of such efforts is less than for fall planting. In Southern California and other areas of the southwest and southern USA, winter planting is preferred for fruit trees because you have great access to bare-root stock (only in Winter actually) and we don’t contend with frozen soils. If it ends up being a super wet winter (see the previous blog by Pam for insight on that) it can be a problem when newly planted trees sit in saturated soils for weeks on end.
Spring planting is a thing because Arbor Day is in spring and everyone wants to plant trees on Arbor Day right? Spring planting is sometimes limited by availability, bare root stock is usually sold out or moved into containers. I don’t like buying left over stock because the leftovers are often not the best. And, trees may be in a new growth or flowering phase and their root systems are activating.
This leaves summer. In Southern California shade trees are planted all year. Fruit trees planted in summer will be the left overs from winter and again I don’t like left overs, so I generally don’t plant fruit trees then. Subtropicals establish well in warm weather so mangoes, avocados and citrus are easily planted in summer if irrigation is assured.
So the harsher the climate, the more restrictive the planting dates, but Fall is still best. In mild climates of southern states you can plant when you want in most cases. But avoiding months with frost is usually helpful as nursery stock often has tender growth. In almost all cases follow your plantings with a generous ring of arborist chips, avoid planting directly in turfgrass and irrigate your tree like it is still in the nursery for the first few weeks until it roots into the native soil. Do not amend the backfill and PLEASE remove the nursery stake at planting. Provide whatever the tree needs to stand upright with loose ties to poles outside the rootzone. Plant trees where they have room to grow and access to sunlight for most of the day. Plant HO!