Fall is the time for forest walks in the turning leaves, pumpkins and roast (or deep-fried, I don’t judge) turkeys. But fall is also great time for tree planting.
Tree planting is often in the spring, and tree selection is best then. But fall tree and shrub planting has some potential advantages over spring planting.
Let’s look at the advantages, how to do it, which species to consider and which to avoid fall planting, and some suppliers.
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For those of us in cold desert-like climates, spring is usually too short, and we go from snow and frozen ground to 80°F and dry soil in a very short time.
If I don’t have trees planted by April it’s usually too late to have a good success rate.
The hot dry conditions stress the new trees and make growth more difficult.
In some parts of the country, you may get heavy rains in the spring, which can drown newly planted trees.
However, the best selection of tree varieties is available in the spring, but good nurseries will have trees available for autumn.
On the other hand, fall has some distinct advantages.
You are probably down with the hard work of harvesting and processing your summer garden. So you have more time on your hands.
Plus, the cooler temperatures make it nicer to work outside.
You can also get good deals from the nurseries, since they want to unload their stock before shutting down for the winter.
Just make sure that they’re not giving you poor quality or mistreated trees that sat in the hot summer sun without proper watering.
Transpiration (leaves releasing water to stay cool) is lower, so trees are less stressed.
Autumn is a good time to plant container and bare root trees. The still-warm soil combined with cooler air temperatures also promote root development without encouraging top growth.
Roots will grow even when soil temperature is down to 40°F, which could be December for some people.
The roots are also able to wake up naturally with the warming spring temperatures, already seeing some growth the previous fall and winter.
They get the benefit of nearly 3 seasons of root growth before facing the summer sun. This is a huge benefit to success rate, because trees get water and nutrients from the roots.
And a healthy growing root system means a healthy growing tree.
Importance of fall planting timing
However one caveat is that waiting too long to plant can mean hard freezes and poor root development.
For me this is around November to December, and we get our first frost around October 1st.
And once the ground is frozen it’s too late to plant – don’t even bother.
If the tree doesn’t get established before winter comes, it can lead to a much higher failure rate.
Another slight drawback is the limited number of suppliers who will ship trees for fall planting. They also may not guarantee fall tree survival like they might spring-shipped trees.
Some sources recommend planting at least 6 weeks before your first hard frost.
But this can be difficult timing-wise to get done, since it puts my planting time back into summer when it’s too hot.
I suggest putting the trees in when it makes the most sense in your climate.
Find a “Goldilocks” time when it’s not too hot, the trees are going dormant, and you still have enough time for root growth before the ground freezes.
So if you can get the timing right, fall may be the ideal time to plant.
Which to fall plant
Trees and bushes with shallow fibrous roots do well planted in fall.
If you’re planting conifers, you may need to plant earlier – in early autumn or late summer – because conifers like the warmer soil temperatures.
For the best success, plant those trees and bushes that are easily established. Some of these include deciduous shrubs (blackberry, raspberry, seaberry & others), hawthorn, maple, honeylocust, and some mulberry species.
Which to spring plant
Trees with larger fewer roots, and slower-growing trees may be best planted in spring to give them more chances to develop roots.
Broad-leaf evergreens may also be better to plant in the spring. Since they don’t drop their leaves in the fall, they lose moisture all winter and are more likely to have winter damage.
Any tree that is difficult or slow to establish is better to plant as early as possible in the spring.
OK, so now you know why to plant in fall, let’s start the fun part – picking out trees!
Here’s a list of tree suppliers, all of which I have ordered from except Van Wells.
I do suggest you contact the supplier and let them help you pick out trees for your climate and location.
Van Well Nursery – I’ve not ordered from them, but their prices seem fair – $25 per tree, or $18 each if you buy 15. Ordering is more difficult, as they don’t have a way to buy online.
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply – GrowOrganic.com – Large selection of common fruit and nut trees, and even some uncommon ones. Their wholesale supplier is Dave Wilson Nursery. I like their search options for USDA zone and tree type.
This is my current favorite nursery supplier, even though their California ship dates are a little too early for my planting times. I got good quality, large caliper sized trees at a good price.
Cold Stream Farm – Mostly US and Midwest native trees and bushes. Good prices and quality, especially on higher quantity purchases. For non-commercial and native plants this is one of my favorites along with Burnt Ridge. Cold Stream even threw in a free plant (Concord grape I think?) when I ordered last.
Burnt Ridge Nursery – Like the previous Cold Stream Farm, this is one of favorites for native plants. But they also have uncommon edibles. I’ve ordered several times from them and have good experiences.
Large selection of fruit and nut trees and bushes. They also have ornamental, Northwest natives, and even rootstock and scionwood for grafting your own trees. The fall-planted trees I got from Burnt Ridge are doing well.
Stark Bros – One of the biggest and oldest nurseries in the US. The actually own many patented fruit tree varieties. They often have deals, and the prices on most stuff is decent.
I only ordered from them once. What they sent me are the reason why I’ve already warned you about buying leftover “sale” trees late in the season. In this case it was an April order of two bare-root pear trees with underdeveloped root systems. Neither put out more than 4 leaves, which promptly fell off.
I had to ask for a dead tree refund, which I got without much fuss. So their guarantee was good at least.
If I had bought earlier I’m sure I would have received better quality trees. But that experience makes me leery of purchasing again. Probably just something I’ll have to get over.
University of Idaho Pitkin Forest Nursery – Mostly native trees, bushes and bulbs/flowers. From them I bought Burr/Gambel hybrid oaks, and serviceberry seedlings. The good thing about state nurseries is that you can often get trees at a much lower cost.
These plants were only $2.50 each, and good quality. And the great thing is most of them are still alive!
Colorado State Forest Nursery – The state coordinates with local extension office to ship orders in bulk, which saves you on shipping costs. Unfortunately, the Western Colorado order arrives in early May, which in some years is really too late for tree planting. I bought literally hundreds of trees from them, over several years, and (mostly) due to my poor planting, they died.
My only consolation is that they were cheap, around a dollar each. But now looking back, I would rather have 20 well-growing trees/bushes. It would cost about the same.
How to fall-plant successfully
Make sure to mulch heavily (at least 6″) with wood chips to retain moisture and buffer temperatures, just not in direct contact with the trunk.
Unlike spring planting, don’t add any organic fertilizer to the tree. You want the roots to grow and get established, not grow leaves and branches (yet).
For detailed instructions, see my desert tree planting article.
- Dig a hole to fit roots without breaking or bending
- Dig a 6-foot diameter 6-8″ basin around the hole
- Mix together soil with appropriate amendments, but avoid heavy fertilizers
- Don’t listen to those people who tell you to only plant in native soil. YHBW!
- Plant tree, carefully filling to avoid air pockets
- Fill basin with organic matter, wood chips preferred
- Water well
Fall is a great time to plant.
Pick the right time and species. Don’t plant slow-growing trees.
Pick the supplier and cultivar/varietal. The fun part!
Plant the right way for best success.
OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about fall tree planting, tools, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.