Spring vs. Fall planting: Where you stand depends on where you sit

I’m reviewing some literature while working on a proposal and ran across a paper by Lisa Richardson-Calfee, Roger Harris and Jody Fanelli at Virginia Tech on the effects planting date on sugar maple trees.  It’s not actually the topic of the proposal I’m working on but the paper caught my eye because spring versus fall planting is one of those questions that just never seems to go away.  In this particular study, balled-in-burlap trees planted at spring budbreak had more new root growth than trees planted in the fall.  So does this mean spring planting is better? Not necessarily.  For container-grown trees the results were basically a wash.  This is fairly typical.  I’ve not done an exhaustive search but I’ve looked at a fair number of studies of spring versus fall planting and they often show no clear trend or some will show spring coming out better or fall coming out better.

So why do we hear so often that “Fall is a great time to plant trees.”  Well, first off, think about who is saying it. Frequently it is nurseries that are looking to unload inventory that didn’t sell during the growing season or landscapers that are looking to keep crews busy during the slow fall season.  But the other part of whether fall is a good time to plant has to do with rainfall and temperature patterns.  Linda Chalker-Scott is an advocate of fall planting.  And for her location in western Washington – and many other locations in the West – this makes sense.  If we look at average rainfall patterns for Seattle (actually Linda is in Puyallup but no one outside of the Northwest can pronounce Puyallup), planting in October – when the rainy season is getting into full swing – makes much more sense than planting in April or May before the summer dry season.

Rainfall pattern for Seattle, WA Source: weather hannel.com
Rainfall pattern for Seattle, WA Source: weather hannel.com

Where I live in East Lansing, on the hand, our climate has a summer maximum precipitation pattern – as does much of the Midwest.  As I’m fond of telling people, there’s a reason Michigan’s Arbor Day is the last Friday in April. Spring is a great time to plant trees here because soil temps are warming and the rainy season is just getting started.

Rainfall pattern for East Lansing, MI Source: weather hannel.com
Rainfall pattern for East Lansing, MI Source: weather hannel.com

What about fall planting in the Midwest? My take is that fall is an OK time to plant trees but not necessarily the best.  We typically will still have some rain in the fall but temperatures are declining quickly. Our average daily temperature in December is 28 deg. F, meaning our soils are beginning to freeze, while the average December temp in Seattle is a balmy 42 deg. F.  That’s warm enough for Linda’s roots to keep growing – well, actually not Linda’s roots but Linda’s tree’s roots.

In any event, if you live in Midwest and other places with a summer max. precipitation pattern, your state’s Arbor Day is a good guide to plant trees.  If you live out West in areas prone to summer drought then fall may be your best bet.  This is also a another example of why it’s good to get your landscape and garden advice from local sources rather than the ‘one-size-fits-all’ advice common in many magazines and gardening websites.






Richardson-Calfee, L.E, J.R. Harris, and J.K. Fanelli. 2008. Root and Shoot Growth Response of Balled-and-Burlapped and Pot-in-Pot Sugar Maple to Transplanting at Five Phenological Growth Stages J. Environ. Hort. 26(3):171–176.

Spring fever: Conifer style

We finally got a reprieve from our wet, cold weather. Just in time for the annual inspection of the conifer troops at the Harper Collection of Dwarf and Unusual Conifers at MSU’s Hidden Lake Gardens.  One of the interesting things about making repeated trips to a conifer collection like this is that different conifers stand out each time.  Whether due to lighting, background foliage, your mood, whatever; it seems like there are different stars each time.

Here are some of today’s standouts.

Pinus contorta var. latifolia  ‘Chief Joseph’
‘Chief Joseph’ lodgepole pine.  Discovered in the wild near Joseph, Oregon where Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Pierce once lived.

Abies concolor ‘Blue cloak’
‘Blue cloak’ concolor fir (white fir for people living on the West coast).  One of the most intense blue forms of color fir – rivals virtually any Colorado blue spruce.

Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Joe Kozy’
‘Joe Kozy’ Japanese umbrella pine.  Sciadopitys is one of the most primitive forms of conifers with fossils dating back over 230 million years.  This cultivar was selected for its fastigiate growth by Sidney Waxman at the University of Connecticut.

And, of course, they always look great when you put them together.  For more info on these and other conifers check out the American Conifer Society Conifer database.

It’s raining, it’s pouring, it’s a good time for a site assessment…

April is turning out to be a soggy month for most of Michigan and our surrounding states.  While most homeowners are inclined to hunker down indoors and keep an eye on their sump pumps on these dark, dreary days; our current run of wet weather is a good opportunity to take a stroll around your property and make some notes.  In particular, note any areas where water is accumulating.


Poor drainage is one of the most common sites factors that limit landscape tree and shrub survival and growth.  Sites that retain water for more than a day or too after rains stop are especially problematic.  The challenge with wet areas is we usually wait to plant trees and shrubs until things are high and dry and it’s easy to forget where the wet spots are.


There are two primary strategies for establishing healthy trees and shrubs in flood-prone spots.  First, determine if the problem can be corrected.  In some cases homeowners may be able to re-direct water flow from downspouts or other sources to keep water form accumulating in one spot. Again, these kinds of problems are easiest to spot if you go out when it’s raining.  Re-grading the area or installing drain tiles are other options but these are usually require skills and equipment beyond the average do-it-yourselfer.


If correcting the drainage issue is not an option, the second strategy is to plant trees or shrubs that are tolerant of flooding.  Plants vary widely in their tolerance of soil flooding and, not surprisingly, trees and shrubs that grow naturally along riverbanks and other low areas are usually the most tolerant.


This low spot in my yard  was a good site for a Baldcypress 

There are numerous resources on flood tolerant trees and shrubs on the web.  Two of the better resources are from the Morton Arboretum and from Cornell University.  Please note the Cornell guide is a large (>6 MB) .pdf file.


These Michigan holly (Ilex verticullata) I planted a couple of years ago a doing fine even though they are periodically flooded each spring.

Wet areas on your property do not have to be a ‘dead zone’, but establishing trees and shrubs in low laying areas takes some planning.  The first step in the process is assessing your site and identifying the problem areas.  The best way to do this is to put on a raincoat and take a walk in the rain.

These are a few of my (least) favorite things…

Spring clean-up came in earnest this weekend at Daisy Hill farm.  Everything will be downhill from here as my least favorite yard chore; cutting back our ornamental grasses, is done for the year.  I know, I know, there are all kinds of shortcuts and tricks for this job including lassoing grasses for the last round-up (see Holly’s March 8 post), duct-taping them, and cutting them down with hedge-trimmers or a chainsaw.  Unfortunately, between our winter snow beating them down and our dogs using them as their own personal jungle playground, standing the grasses up neatly to await a trim just isn’t an option.  So I dive in and do it the old-fashion way; armed with a set of hand-loppers, every piece of  personal protective equipment I can find, and the entire repertoire of swear words my Army sergeant Old Man taught me.  Between hacking, cussing, and hauling it’s a two afternoon job.  On the plus side, it did give me time to ponder my top five list of least favorite yard jobs.  See how it compares with your list…


  1. Cutting back ornamental grasses
  2. Picking up black walnuts (this is to Fall what no. 1 is to spring)
  3. Weeding (the only redeeming factor is instant gratification)
  4. Deadheading (yeah, it’s not the hard but you know you’ll have to turn right around and do it again (and again and again…)
  5. Leaf raking (Actually, this wouldn’t be so bad but I went out and bought a chipper-shredder a couple years ago and feel compelled to use it.  Works like a champ – shreds leaves as fast as I can feed them in.  Too bad the bag needs to be emptied approximately every 43 seconds…)

What to do when it’s still raining?

It’s almost May…and it’s still raining. Even for our normally wet spring climate, this has been an unusually soggy year. I’m also blaming the weather on my 3rd or 4th cold so far this year, which has knocked me flat for the last 6 days (which was why I had no Friday puzzle posted). So in between blowing my nose, hacking my lungs out, and generally feeling sorry for myself, I started looking over 10 years’ worth of photos of our home landscape.

You’ve seen bits and pieces of this before in some of my postings. But one of the spots I’m most proud of is the tiny east-facing side yard that originally contained lawn, a lilac, and a border of arborvitae. Within the first few years the lawn came out and plants started going in. In 2004 I’d installed some small rhododendron, a redbud (left foreground), and a whole lot of woodchips:

Since then we removed the lilac (it had been planted too close to the garage and was a powdery mildew magnet), put in an arbor and wisteria (on the right), and added a few more plants (ferns, bleeding hearts, various bulbs and tubers, etc.).  Here it is two (2006) and five (2009) years later:

This year we’ll finish off the area with some flagstone pavers.

One of the main reasons I’m so pleased with this area is that it was inexpensive to redo and it established quickly. We bought the redbud, the wisteria, and the bulbs, but the rest were donations from friends’ gardens, or volunteers that popped up elsewhere in the yard, or plants that someone else wanted removed (like the larger rhody in the far left corner and the dogwood in the right foreground, 2006 photo). The chips were free; the flagstones were a major score from craigslist (free to whomever would pry them up and lug them out).  All the purchased trees and shrubs were barerooted; and root-pruned if needed before planting. Upkeep is minimal except for a bit of pruning and spot watering during the hottest summer months; we’ve lost no plants other than the occasional bulb poaching by squirrels.

It’s just a little bitty sideyard…but I enjoy walking through it every time I’m outside, even in the rain.

Pause for effect…

Spring (in either hemisphere) is an incredibly busy time for anyone even remotely associated
with horticulture – a frenzy of growing, selling, buying, planting, and
information-disbursing.  If gardening were this wildly popular year-round, there might even be some money to be made. For us Hort faculty,  spring means field trips,  student plant sales, cramming even more plants
onto an identification test (heh), tons of consumer questions, research projects coming and going, and many many speaking engagements. As gardeners, we’re also trying to get all that stuff done, too – weeding, mulching, planting recent purchases or gifts from plant-sharing friends (the best kind). It’s hard to slow down and enjoy spring.  Joel and I did a “forced pause” last evening before dusk. We put down the implements, poured some white wine, and simply wandered around our garden.  So many things coming up and out; it was breathtakingly lovely, all the fresh foliage and flowers, basking in the last of the day’s sunshine. Please don’t let spring rip past without stopping to sniff the
Convallaria. Unless it’s still under snow (sorry Bert!).

My favorite little Japanese Maple – Acer palmatum ‘Tsuma gaki’. Looks like she just got her nails done.

It’s Spring-o’clock Somewhere…

We’re supposed to get an inch or two of snow tomorrow.  It was 75 degrees last week. Typical schizophrenic spring weather. But spring was already in full bloom a few weeks ago in Dallas, Texas.  Our group of Virginia Tech floriculture faculty and grad students visited for the National Floriculture Forum, a meeting of researchers and educators. It was organized by Texas A&M and hosted by the Dallas Arboretum, home of uber-horticulturist Jimmy Turner.

The Arb was right in the middle of their “Dallas Blooms” festival – they plant half a million spring bulbs each year for the most amazing show this side of Keukenhof.  I’ve never been a huge tulip fan, but somehow came back with a gazillion photos. You just couldn’t help it. It’s a beautiful display garden; don’t miss it if in the area.

Imagine 60+ acres of this. My retinas were burning. But in a good way.

A cute Fosteriana-type tulip, oddly named ‘Zombie’.
Note the use of pecan hulls as mulch. Results in the biggest, fattest squirrels you’ve ever seen.

I’ve seen some interesting art in public gardens, but this is a new fave.
Probably there’s a deeper meaning behind it, but basically it’s a man and woman snogging in the tulips.

Big squirting toads, with list of safety rules on what one shouldn’t do to/with the toad.

Jimmy said the place would be crawling with brides and babies by afternoon, and he was right. That’s what he gets for creating such a photogenic garden. Couldn’t swing a fat squirrel without hitting one or the other.