Can you plant trees in the fall with good success? The days are warm now, but the cool nip of fall is just around the corner. With the autumn months approaching, the question often arises, “Is fall a good time to plant trees?”
Tree planting in autumn has several benefits, including milder temperatures, potential for good fall precipitation and cooler evening temperatures, which is less stressful for immature trees. These climatic conditions provide for a good growing environment, especially for a young, developing root system.
As winter approaches and the air temperature starts to get below freezing, soil temperatures will continue to remain warm enough for good root growth. Early root development in newly planted trees is really what it is all about.
With air temperatures cooler than soil temps, you will often get root growth without much top growth. When the newly planted tree comes out of dormancy in the spring, it will have a more established root system for taking up water and nutrients before the hot days of summer set in again.
Although you can plant both hardwood and conifer landscape trees in the fall, it is a little safer with hardwoods as they will be dormant come late fall and early winter, whereas conifers will continue to transpire into the winter. It is for this reason you can probably plant some seedling hardwoods in the fall, but it is strongly suggested to not plant conifer seedlings until spring.
Fall tree planting should be no different than spring planting. Critical items to address would include:
Planting depth. The tree’s root collar should be at or slightly above ground level.
Tree staking. Stake the tree if needed, but do not leave straps around the tree for much more than a year.
Tree water needs. Water trees as needed, especially during dry periods in the fall. A generous shot of water is always good going into the winter if the soil is not already saturated.
Mulch layer. A good 2- to 3-inch-deep mulch ring around the base of the tree is highly recommended, but do not build a volcano mound against the trunk of the tree.
Fall planting season can vary depending on where you are located. Typically, planting after Sept. 1 should get you past any prolonged hot, dry spells. It is also recommended not to plant anything after the last week in October to avoid any early hard freezes.
Whether it is fall or spring, planting trees is always a good decision.
Karloff is the Southeast District forester for Nebraska Forest Service.