Plant your trees and shrubs in fall: Dan Gill explains why woody landscaping should go in now | Home/Garden
The cool season from October through March is the ideal time for planting hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers and vines in our landscapes, with fall planting especially recommended.
That may seem confusing, because the warm season, March through May, is the prime time when gardeners head out to nurseries and garden centers to purchase plants for landscapes.
There’s a good reason for this difference in planting times, and it’s based on how plants grow. Let me explain why fall is the best time to plant hardy woody plants.
Plants feed themselves by using the energy of the sun to create sugar out of carbon dioxide and water.
Who gets the food
Plants feed themselves by using the energy of the sun to create sugar out of carbon dioxide and water. Food is produced in the green, photosynthesizing tissues — primarily the leaves. Once the food is created in the leaves, it is distributed to other parts of the plant.
But the food is not distributed equally.
Any flowers and flower buds on the plant will have all their food needs satisfied first. Next in line are any developing fruit. The leaves are next in the line, and stems are after them. The roots are at the bottom of the food hierarchy.
That means that all other parts of the plant get first crack at the food supply, with only what is left over going to the roots.
Quickly expanding its root system into the surrounding ground is crucial for newly planted trees.
Roots, however, are especially important to in-ground plants. When we take a plant out of a pot and plant it into the ground, the most important thing that plant needs to do is to send roots into the surrounding soil. Horticulturally, this is called “getting established.”
Until a plant sends roots into the surrounding soil, its survival is touch and go. If a tree or shrub does not establish a strong root system, it will likely not make it.
A more difficult scenario
If we were to plant hardy, woody landscape plants in the spring, much of the food would go into the abundant new growth that occurs in the spring and early summer. Many plants bloom in spring and early summer, another drain on food.
During the summer, food is often going to developing fruit and seeds. So the roots would have a lot of competition for the limited amount of food a plant can produce.
That means that spring-planted trees and shrubs would go through their first summer in the ground, a very stressful time, with a limited ability to send out the vigorous new roots so critical to the survival of the plant.
Fall focus on roots
But in case the situation is different. Trees, shrubs, ground covers and vines stop growing or growth slows. For most of these plants, flowering is over, and fruiting is finished. Yet, there are still leaves making food in the sunny, mild days of late October, November and December.
Finally, an abundant food supply becomes available to the roots, which are so crucial, so they can grow into the surrounding soil as soon as possible.
A fall-planted tree still has leaves to make food for the roots.
With abundant food available in the fall, most hardy, woody landscape plants experience a natural period of abundant root growth.
By planting in the fall, we take advantage of this root growth phase that allows landscape plants to quickly establish after planting. The roots even continue to grow through the winter because our ground does not freeze.
In addition, the chilly to mild winter weather allows the new plantings to settle in and adjust with little environmental stress. Spring-planted trees and shrubs must make the difficult transition from pot to soil during the stressful extreme heat of summer.
Watering also is a snap. Regular rainfall is typical during the winter here, so fall plantings need little, if any, irrigation. And you needn’t be concerned about whatever freezes winter might bring. Hardy landscape plants are not damaged by winter freezes, even if newly planted.
When spring arrives and the fall-planted landscape plants explode into growth and bloom, their root systems will have already grown out and gotten well along to establishment.
The plants will have dealt with the stress of being planted in the ground during the cool winter.
As a result, fall planted landscape plants grow vigorously in spring and are better able to deal with the intense heat and stress of their first summer in the landscape.
Shopping at nurseries may be easier in the fall when there are fewer customers.
Fall and winter planting has other advantages. Nurseries are less busy during these months. That means the staff has far more time to spend time assisting you. For goodness sakes take advantage of it — something easier to do during the fall and winter months. This increased service can make for a more pleasant and successful shopping experience.
Get your hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers and vines planted in the next few months, and you will find that they establish more reliably and with much less work watering. Fall is for planting!