When most of us think of planting things, our minds wonder to spring, that time of new growth, green sprouts, and flowers ablaze. While this is the right season for cultivating summer gardens, it’s not necessarily the best time for planting trees. Many old-time growers prefer to plant trees in the autumn.

In reality, autumn is a great time for lots of plants. Cabbages and different types of greens love the cold weather, with the first frosts knocking out bitterness. Broccoli, beets, carrots, and fava beans all really dig the cold weather. Garlic, onions, and leeks all do well when planted in the fall. These plants are cool-weather crops. Depending on the winter extremities (try a cold frame!), some of these will actually endure and provide fresh food in the winter and year-round. Try planting trees in the fall and maybe next year they will have beautiful fall-colored leaves.

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Slightly different and more to the point, spring bulbs and perennials are also best planted in the autumn. For the same reasons, it’s a good idea to plant trees a month or two before the first freeze. But, what are these reasons and how exactly do we plant trees in the fall?

Why to Plant Trees in the Fall

Though it seems counter-intuitive to plant a young tree just before the seemingly harshest season, the reality is that winter is not the harshest season for the tree. Trees go dormant, essentially hibernating, in the winter, whereas in the summer, they fight the heat for survival.

Thus, planting trees in the fall allows them enough time to settle in and let their roots find a little purchase while the soil is cool and comfortable. Then, those trees get a good rest until springtime. They get to come out of hibernation naturally, getting a good growth spurt before summer starts to challenge them.

When to Plant Trees in the Fall

The main rule for planting trees in the autumn is that it needs to be done before the ground freezes. Technically, there could be snow on the ground, and as long as the shovel will slide into the soil, planting is still possible. That said, the ideal time would be a few weeks before freezing becomes routine and affects the ground. Waiting too late might inhibit root growth before dormancy.

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On the other end of this spectrum, the point of planting in the autumn would be to wait until summer temperatures wane a little, so it’s important to wait for that. Once the air is colder than the soil, trees will stop trying to grow above the ground and will focus on establishing a strong root system. This makes them lower maintenance than spring/summer plantings.

Small tree in rain

Source: Intermountain Forest Service/Flickr

Which Trees to Plant in the Fall

Because trees are perennial plants, the majority of them will benefit from being planted in the fall. That said, there are some ideal candidates for the autumn. Deciduous trees in general are well-suited for fall, as are spring-blooming evergreens like rhododendrons and redbuds.

How to Plant Trees in the Fall

Firstly, there are basic tree planting rules that should apply. With any tree at any time, the planting hole should be roughly twice the diameter of pot holding the tree. The depth of the hole should put the tree at its natural ground level (no deeper), but it’s not a bad idea to loosen up a few inches of soil at the bottom of the hole. This loosened soil at the sides and beneath provides easy traveling for roots to get going.

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Once the root ball is in the hole, the soil should be packed around it with a stick or shovel handle to insure no hidden air pockets. The newly planted tree should also be watered in with three or more gallons of water to meet those early needs, as well as collapse any air pockets that may have survived. Lastly, a nice 3-inch thick layer of well-rotted wood mulch should be spread around the trunk at least as wide as the tree’s canopy but kept from touching the trunk itself.

A Low-Maintenance, Arborous Autumn

Another wonderful aspect of planting trees in the autumn is that maintenance is relatively low. Fall tends to have sufficient rain to keep them well-hydrated, though if there is a week or more without rain it would be a good idea to water. Once the ground has frozen, the work is done until springtime by which time the trees will be much better established. It might be the perfect time to start a backyard orchard!

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