A well-know, but anonymous, quote states: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.” The benefits of trees and shrubs cannot be overstated. Trees provide shade, prevent soil erosion, improve air and water quality, create homes for wildlife, and increase property values. While spring is the best time to plant a tree, many can still be planted in the fall.
Fall planting can be successful as long as you do not wait too long, do not choose a fragile and difficult to establish species, and are willing to invest the time to properly care for your new specimen.
Spring planting has the advantage of a long growing season for the plant to be established. However, the heat and unpredictability of the growing season can make fall a good alternative. In the fall ample rain, good soil temperatures, more stable air temperatures and more time for the homeowner to get the job done may actually create a better set of circumstances for the tree to thrive.
Most deciduous (those trees that lose their leaves in the fall) that are “balled and burlapped” or in a container already have well established root systems and can withstand fall planting. Do not plant bare-rooted trees in the fall, but limit them to spring planting. Fall planting needs to occur early enough that the soil temperature is above 55 degrees. In our area, this will be true until roughly mid-October. Conifers (evergreens such as pine and spruce) prefer soil temperatures in the range of 60–70 degrees and should be planted earlier (before late September).
There are some species that do not adapt well to fall planting. Those include: sweet gum, fir, American hornbeam, ginkgo, larch, willow, bald cypress, hemlock, red maple, birch, hawthorn, poplars, cherries, plum and oaks. These trees are susceptible to winter damage and should be reserved for spring planting.
The following trees make good candidates for fall planting: alder, ash, buckeye or horse chestnut, catalpa, crabapple, hackberry, hawthorn, honey locust, elm, Kentucky coffee tree, linden, maple, sycamore, pines, and spruces.
Most deciduous shrubs can easily be planted in the fall. However, broadleaf evergreens like rhododendrons and narrow leaf evergreens like yews prefer spring planting. A good rule of thumb is to plant shrubs with few, larger roots in the spring. Those with shallow, fibrous root systems can make the transition to fall planting.
Fall planted trees and shrubs will require some additional attention. Plant them immediately upon arrival and do not wait. If you are uncertain about proper tree planting procedure, this brochure covers it in complete detail: https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/files/2014/11/Tree-Planting-Brochure-VPandian.pdf . Many trees do not make it through one season because they were not planted correctly. Take the time to read the brochure and avoid simple mistakes.
Once planted, make sure the tree gets an inch of water each week until the ground freezes. This is a critical step. Do so even after deciduous trees have lost their leaves. Adding mulch around the base of the tree will help conserve moisture.
Wrap the bark of the thinner barked trees (such as red maple) in November to prevent damage, but be sure to remove it in early spring. If necessary, stake the tree.
Certified Master Gardener