Fall and winter months are some of the best times of the year to plant a tree. However, the answer to "can you plant trees in fall?" is not a clear yes or no. It will depend on a variety of factors including your local climate, what type of tree/shrub you are planting, and how much time before severe weather is forecasted. 

Ideally, trees and shrubs need about 6-8 weeks to establish roots before a heavy freeze, but it’s actually OK to plant them anytime the ground is workable, and many bare-root trees and shrubs are planted in very early spring while they’re still dormant.

Look At Trees in Your Area

A good rule of thumb is that if the trees in your area still have leaves, you can plant new trees. Mid-August to mid-October is an ideal time of year to plant new trees, though, that time frame can be stretched into November and December. To be 100% sure, measure soil temperature early in the morning for a few, consecutive days. If your soil is consistently 50° F or higher, you’re good to plant.

The 50° F mark works best for deciduous trees. Those are the trees that shed leaves before for winter. Because of this, they focus only on growing and providing water to their roots in winter. So, they don’t need as much energy.

On the other hand, evergreen trees–like pine and spruce–hold onto their needles year-round. They need all the nutrients they can get before the ground freezes. That’s why you want to avoid planting evergreen trees if the soil temperature is lower than 60° F. Your tree wouldn’t have enough time to save the energy needed to survive the winter.

For most states and zones (including 5, 6, and 7) fall really is a great time to add a tree to your yard. Zones 8, 9, and 10 have more time to get plants in the ground and can plant into December. Following is a list of states that have exceptions to fall planting:  

  • Alabama: Fall is okay, but winter (November through March) is even better.
  • Florida: Planting in the rainy season from May to October is smart. But you can probably plant any time of year. Lucky you!
  • Georgia: Late fall or even winter will work. November and December are perfect.
  • Louisiana: Expand your home’s forest in November or December.
  • Tennessee: Autumn (and early winter) are best.

Once the first snow falls and/or your ground is frozen, it is best to wait til late winter/early spring before planting trees in your yard. The young saplings are susceptible to their roots drying out in the cold and not being able to withstand the wind/ice/snow. 

Deciduous Tree vs. Evergreen

It is best to plant trees when they are dormant (because you aren’t as likely to disrupt their growth), so you need to consider if the tree is deciduous or evergreen. Deciduous trees do well if they are planted at the end of fall, when their leaves are falling and they are beginning to go dormant, or (better yet) the beginning of spring, before they have begun to bud. Evergreen trees, on the other hand, aren’t as finicky when it comes to their growth. You have a little more leeway, but you should still avoid planting them when it’s hot outside or very cold.

Weather Forecast

Plan to plant as best as you can. Do you think a young sapling will live if you plant it the week before a blizzard? Of course not! That’s about as likely as a baby surviving if you set its cradle outside on a cold winter’s night. If you’re anticipating any extreme weather like a snowstorm or ice, wait until the forecast is more mild.

Special Handling for Fall Planting

  1. Keep plants watered! If you do nothing else... make sure to keep the newly planted trees watered. The worst part of cold damage is caused by desiccation, or drying out. Keep new shrubs watered every week or two until the ground freezes, and especially right before a heavy freeze.
  2. Mulching is important when planting trees and shrubs in the cooler times of year. Mulch will help to maintain constant soil temperatures. Plants are able to grow roots when the soil temperature stays above 45 degrees. By applying a good layer of mulch you will not only extend the time in which the soil maintains that temperature it will also keep soil moisture at a constant level.
  3. Avoid stimulating growth: Don’t fertilize or overly amend the soil. You can add a little compost and bone meal (to stimulate root growth), but hold off on fertilizer until spring.
  4. For trees planted in the fall if you live in a windy area you should consider staking the trees to prevent undue stress on the new roots.
  5. Evergreen plants can be harmed by the drying winter winds and some gardeners insist on spraying plants with a wilt-preventive chemical. If you live in a windy area this is a good safety measure to protect your investment. 
  6. Don’t disturb the plant: Avoid pruning, and be very gentle with the roots while planting. The shrub won’t have time to recover from damage, and it’s going to be stressed enough as it is. The exception would be if the tree is damaged in shipment, trim the broken branches. 

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to email us so that we may further assist you. 

Sources: Davey, Todays HomeownerGarden Goods Direct, Nixa Lawn Care, Davey

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