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Many of us are already putting away our spades, but if you do, you’ll miss the best planting season of the year. Spring – the classic planting season – may be superior for most vegetables and annuals, but for woody plants – trees and shrubs – and container-grown perennials, fall is superior.

That’s not just my opinion. It’s the considered judgment of two expert growers I consulted last week (both produce plants for NatureHills.com, the nation’s largest online nursery).

Tim Flood of McKay Nursery is based in southwestern Wisconsin in USDA Zone 5A-4B. He explained that fall is such a good planting time because, although the air may be cool, the soil is warm. The cooler air reduces the stress on the above-ground portion of the plant and slows its growth, while the warm soil encourages vigorous root growth. Root growth continues, he adds, until the soil freezes.   This root growth gives fall plantings a head-start the following spring. In fact, fall-planted trees and shrubs typically behave like established veterans in their first spring, flowering and developing a normal amount of new growth.  Trees and shrubs transplanted in spring, by contrast, find the air warm but the soil still cold. That means the tops of the plants are spurred to growth while the roots are still dormant, which is far from ideal.

Fall planting is even more advantageous in the South. Tom Aubrey, who grows plants for Nature Hills in Mobile, Alabama, notes that planting can continue until Thanksgiving in his area – USDA Zone 8.   Aubrey says that fall’s cooler nights when the temperatures start dropping to 70 or so, encourage robust plant growth.

One advantage of fall planting in both North and South, is that it gives the plant more time, an extra season of growth, to settle in before it has to face the heat and drought stress of summer. This is especially important in the South, where summer hardiness is often as much or more of a concern than winter hardiness, but a bonus in the North as well.

Both Flood and Aubrey recommend extra mulching for fall plantings. In the North, the extra mulch insulates the soil, helping to keep it warmer and prolong the period of root growth. In the South, the extra mulch helps to keep the soil moister and can insulate roots and the plant’s crown against an unseasonably early cold spell.

As a gardener, I also like fall-planting because this is a season of bargains at many garden centers and nurseries. Many such businesses prefer not to over-winter their left-over stock and so offer it for sale at considerable mark-downs in the fall.  Sometimes, adds Tim Flood, fall shoppers also get the first crack at new introductions, plants that have been in production all year and are just entering the market.

Plant on!



Posted by

Thomas Christopher
on October 3, 2016 at 10:53 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.


  1. While autumn is ideal for planting trees and shrubs, caution is advised to plant evergreens as early as possible prior to freezing temperatures. I have seen too many large plantings of laurels, and even conifers dead in the spring that were transplanted in late autumn. In the mid Atlantic I try to plant touchy evergreens before the end of October, though there are times when a warm and wet November invites later planting.

  2. It seems like the idea of a “planting season” is a bit anachronistic nowadays with the advent of the plastic nursery pot. The reality is that most things can be planted just about any time that there is water to support the new planting. Container grown plants have all their roots intact so no need to recover lost roots.
    The false perception that spring and fall are for planting makes a big dent in the profitability of the nursery industry and deeply affects the availability of plants. Nurseries are forced to sell only what flowers in the spring and the fall and there are tons of great plants that never make it to the benches because people think you can’t plant in summer or winter.
    My observation has been that summer planting for many things, including many perennials, subtropicals, ferns, grasses, etc, has been very successful, while fall planting these things often results in loss over a wet winter. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen gardens planted in the heat of summer do better across the board, with faster maturing and less loss than gardens planted any other time of the year. Nut admittedly with a higher water bill!
    Here in Atlanta I don’t plant grasses or ferns after September (although our summer is still cooking away and fall seems very late this year and I would still plant). They often don’t root in before winter rains and they rot in the ground.
    Likewise I am not adverse to planting in winter here – especially woodies and conifers. (and I hardly ever plant B&B conifers – the recovery time and loss potential aren’t worth the increased size). And dormant perennials with deep roots – like baptisia – do very well planted in winter.
    I think there really is no one answer about when to plant but rather one general principal – plant when you need to and then do what you need to to keep the plants alive while they establish. Beyond that – its about knowing the needs of specific plants.

  3. The spread of container-grown plants has opened up new planting seasons, you are right. Winter, of course, is still out of bounds in much of the country — certainly where I garden in zones 5 and 6. Summer planting is stressful, especially summers as hot and dry as the one we experienced in New England this year. It really helps the plants to have a period of root growth before they confront summertime demands for moisture.

  4. Here in CA the planting season is even further extended. I just planted peas last week and am looking forward to the first harvest around Thanksgiving time. This weekend I hope to get lettuces for salads in the ground. After Christmas is the ideal time to plant bareroot roses, and January and February are perfect for bareroot trees, berries, and shrubs.

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