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Best Time to Plant Trees – Fall or Spring?

Seasonal changes dictate many of our gardening habits including the time we choose to plant trees. Some are adamant that spring is the best time to plant trees, others swear by planting trees in the fall.

There’s truth to both sides, but is one season significantly better than the other?

Traditionally, the best time to plant trees is in the fall before temperatures get below freezing, but planting a tree in spring is also an option.

In this article, I will analyze the pros and cons of planting a tree in spring vs in fall and address some peculiarities of planting trees based on size and type of tree.

Planting Trees in Fall vs Spring

There are a host of arguments supporting the benefits of planting a tree in the fall as opposed to spring. Many gardeners and experienced botanists will encourage you to plant a tree in fall.

Here are some of the arguments that support the idea of a fall tree planting:

  • Trees can focus on developing their roots instead of investing energy in growing leaves and branches (in spring they’d need to do both)
  • Water requirements are lower with the drop of temperatures and trees are unlikely to dry out during this time
  • Cooler soil stimulates root formation in trees, giving them the opportunity to grow sturdy roots that can better uptake nutrients and water when spring comes

Of course, not all trees prefer to be planted in the fall and sometimes planting in the fall can come with some of the following challenges:

  • If trees are otherwise not healthy (e.g. they were mistreated in the nursery and were unable to form healthy roots), they will struggle to survive in cold temperatures
  • If they’re planted too late and the ground freezes over, they will not be able to grow their roots and uptake water

So, if a tree comes from a healthy nursery, already has a healthy set of roots and it’s not planted too late in the fall, chances are high that come next spring it will grow into a healthy tree.

Also, mulch added to the soil around the tree can protect against the ground freezing over and causing damage to the roots. A 5 inch layer of chipped woods can work to prevent freezing and keep your newly planted tree safe.

But there are arguments in favor of planting a tree in the spring too. Here are some of the benefits of planting a tree in spring:

  • A spring planting allows the tree to develop and strengthen for the winter
  • In some climates, spring means a lot of precipitation, which is ideal since newly planted trees require lots of water to support their growth
  • Spring has the highest plant availability, nurseries will certainly carry more plants during the spring as opposed to the fall

Of course, many gardeners will advise against planting a tree in the spring citing several of the following reasons:

  • Planting a tree in early spring, when the weather can still change for the worse, can potentially kill off a tree if a sudden frost sets in
  • Trees planted in spring will have to focus on growing leaves in addition to growing roots, this can quickly deplete resources and requires a lot of energy, potentially causing problems on both levels
  • An extremely dry summer can also wreak havoc since newly planted trees require a lot of water during the first 6 months after planting

Therefore, there are arguments and counter-arguments for both scenarios. Ultimately, your geographical location and climate particularities will determine whether it’s best for you to plant a tree in spring or in summer.

In areas with short winters and a long fall, planting in the fall can be better than planting in the spring. Where falls are short and winters are long and frosty, a spring planting is more advisable.

When to Plant Evergreen Trees?

Unlike deciduous trees that lose their leaves in fall and winter, evergreens keep their leaves and needles all year long.

This means that they still lose water and require water all throughout winter, despite having a reduced metabolism.

An evergreen planted in the fall may have trouble getting enough water for its roots once the ground freezes over.

To overcome this problem, it can be better to plant evergreens in spring rather than in fall.

Can Trees Be Planted in the Summer?

There’s a reason why the debate on when is the best time to plant trees is going on between planting in spring or in the fall.

Summer is not a good time to plant a tree, especially if summers are hot and dry in your area. A summer planting is simply too taxing on a tree to be considered a viable alternative to a spring or fall planting.

And it goes without saying that a winter planting (however gentle the winter may seem to you) is also not a viable alternative.

Is it Better to Plant Small or Large Trees?

Planting large trees has several immediate advantages — like the landscape effect and increase in property value, and even shade creation.

But it comes with a higher chance of transplant shock. So, all that time, effort and money (larger trees from nurseries are more expensive) invested into planting can be all for nothing if the tree does not survive the planting.

Small trees, however, can better withstand the shock of transplanting, they’re much less expensive, but of course, they take more time to grow and offer the same benefits of a large tree.

Ultimately, it’s your decision if you want to plant a small tree or take your chances with a large tree instead. It can take up to 3 years for small trees to catch up with larger ones.

How Often to Water Newly Planted Trees?

Newly planted trees have a high water intake, so watering them regularly is crucial to make sure they develop well and become established.

General watering guidelines of newly planted trees recommend that you water these trees daily for the first 1-2 weeks after planting.

For the period between 2-12 weeks, water about 2 times per week. After 12 weeks, water weekly until the tree looks established.

Of course, weather and other factors specific to your area may dictate a different watering schedule to that I described above. Where precipitation is abundant, you may need to water less often or none at all.

As for the volume of water needed, here too there are a few guidelines you can follow. Newly planted trees should receive around 1-1.5 gallons of water per inch of stem caliper.

Wrapping Up

Whether you plant a tree in spring or autumn, or you plant a small or large tree, there are pros and cons to each decision. Ultimately, you need to weigh these pros and cons and decide which option suits you best.

Some trees are more prone to winter injury. For example, magnolias, cherries and plums are believed to be better planted in spring for a higher success rate. A fall planting may prove fatal, especially if it’s done late in the fall and followed by a long and frosty winter.

Therefore, also consider the type of tree you are planning on planting and do some research on the best time to plant them.

Updated: October 14, 2020

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