Is Fall a Good Time to Plant?

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Robert Pavlis

Is fall a good time to plant perennials and trees? Most people plant in spring, but many have suggested that fall might be an even better time to plant. It is cool, the above ground part of the plant is going dormant and so root growth does not have to compete with top growth. A lot of plants are on sale in fall so that is certainly a plus, but is fall planting better than spring planting?

Is Fall a Good Time to Plant?
Is Fall a Good Time to Plant?, source: Speak for the Trees Boston

Benefits of Fall Planting

Here are the claimed benefits for fall planting.

  • Plants are on sale
  • Plants are finished making flowers so energy can be used for root growth
  • Roots grow better in cool soil
  • Fall rain means less watering

It is true that plants go on sale in fall because nurseries are trying to reduce their inventory so they don’t have to overwinter them, but selection is also poorer. Plants are no longer putting on new growth and most have stopped flowering. However, spring flowering plants are developing buds for next spring and others are ripening seeds. Both of these processes take quite a bit of plant resources. Fall can have a lot of rain but it can also be very dry in some areas.

Better Root Growth in Fall

For years I have been reading that roots grow best in cool soil and that fall is the perfect time for root growth. A while ago I investigated this claim and found that most plants actually grow more roots in the warmth of summer, not fall. In fact, once temperatures start falling, root growth decreases dramatically. Read more on this in When Do Roots Grow – Spring, Summer or Fall?.

Growth of pecan taproot at various temperatures
Growth of pecan taproot at various temperatures

Best Time to Plant Trees

There are two schools of thought about planting trees. Some feel that spring planting is best and others prefer fall planting. I have watched this debate for many years and the majority of experts prefer spring planting. The University of New Hampshire has this to say, “As a general rule, deciduous plants are more suitable for fall planting than evergreens. Evergreens, like arborvitae or rhododendrons, lose water through their leaves throughout the winter and are especially susceptible to winter injury before their roots are established. Plants with shallow, fibrous roots are usually the best choices for fall planting because they recover faster than those with large, thick taproots. For this reason, plants like magnolia, tulip tree, oak, and ginkgo are better suited for planting in the spring.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

Purdue University warns, “Avoid planting large trees in fall.”

Seedling trees are able to endure the most handling while they are still dormant. The Oregon State Extension office recommends spring planting for tree seedlings. “January through March for evergreen trees and mid-March through mid-April for deciduous trees, when lots of water is available”.

Here is a more detailed analysis of the two tree planting options; Best Time To Plant Trees.

Available Water for Planting

Whether you use spring or fall planting, it is critical to supply enough water to the plant and a natural rainy season might determine the best planting time for you area.

Spring works best for hand watering because homeowners spend more time in the garden in spring and will therefore pay more attention to new plantings. Many gardeners head inside early fall and forget about the garden and this can kill plants set out in fall.

Fall plants should be watered right up until the ground freezes. If you’re not prepared to do that – plant in spring.

Some Perennials Prefer Fall Planting

Perennials with large fleshy roots, such as peonies, Oriental poppies and Siberian iris seem to do better with a fall planting but to be honest, I move my peonies mostly in spring and they do just fine.

YouTube video

Best Time to Move Bulbs

Daffodil bulbs showing root and stem growth Oct 9
Daffodil bulbs showing root and stem growth Oct 9 in zone 5

Many bulbs, and especially spring bulbs such as tulips and daffodils start making roots in late summer, so fall is not a good time to move them. It is best to move bulbs once the top growth dies back. A few bulbs like lilies are still green in fall, so a fall move will work.

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Newly purchased spring bulbs are best planted as soon as you get them.

Ever wonder what bulbs do underground? This will show you: Colchicum autumnale – The Life Cycle Explained

Planting in Hot Climates

What about hot climates? Is spring too hot for planting? I received several comments from people in tropical climates that say spring planting is too hot, so fall is better. Remember that term like spring and fall are convenient terms for general discussion, but it is the actual temperature that matters. In zone 5, we don’t do much before April 1 in the garden. In Florida, That might be Feb 1.

In really hot climates there is no cold winter – so is there much difference between fall and spring?

I tried to find data on tropical soil temperatures and root growth in warm soil, but found very little. Let me know in the comments if you find a good link.

I did find this study that looked at root growth in seedlings, of tropical-type plants, at higher temperatures. They grew best at higher temperatures (34C/29C, day/night).

Best Time to Plant Trees and Perennials

If you buy things in fall, it is best to plant them right away. They survive winter better in the ground than in a pot.

Spring planting is much better for most locations and works well for all kinds of plants. Fall is a second best option and will work provided you plant early, keep things watered and select the right kind of plants.

Trees are more difficult to establish and are fussier about planting time. Perennials are more flexible, in part because they spend the winter protected under ground.

So called “fall planting” should be done in late summer or as early in fall as possible to give plants lots of time in warm soil to develop a new root system.

Planting Trees

Planting Trees – Remove Burlap, String and Wire Baskets – see what happens when you break this rule.

Planting Trees the Right Way

Washing Roots Before Planting Trees – a new experimental method for planting

When Do Roots Grow – Spring, Summer or Fall?

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

10 thoughts on “Is Fall a Good Time to Plant?”

  1. Modern garden design is a captivating concept, and your article provides a great guide to achieving it. Your attention to details and the creative ideas shared are inspiring. It’s evident that modern gardens can be both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

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  2. I know you weren’t suggesting summer planting, sorry for the misunderstanding. But planting in spring around here means there’s much less time to establish before heat and drought conditions begin – some years it starts as early as April, and June/July is always pretty bad. Our winter soil isn’t exactly warm but also never freezes, so fall planting means there’s a lot more time to grow a root system before the heat stress begins.

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  3. It is likely that the answer varies with climate zones – here in sub-tropical Brisbane, Australia, planting in autumn (no “fall”) is considered a good idea, so that plants have had time to establish and then pause over winter (low temps overnight of 8-9 celsius) before being ready to time their own growth effort in Spring. Is it not the case that similar conditions apply in similar zones in the US?

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    • Warm climates where roots would grow all winter might do better with fall planting. I was looking for information about root growth in warmer climates and soil temp changes, but never really found a good link for information.

      Reply
    • Hi/Hello
      Lloyd here in Perth Western Australia we have “fall” (& freeways not motorways), you are being semantic, fall is autumn & the English 🙂 speaking world know they both have the same meaning

      Now I am off to the back yard/garden store/shop, in my wagon/estate car…

      Have a nice day

      Reply
  4. I always get a lot out of your posts and videos!

    IF the plants new are growing in pots, whether in your yard or in a nursery, it is better to plant them into the earth. Even in the fall. The roots might get some growth between now and spring. The soil temperature today in zone 6, at 4″ depth, is 60 degrees F. The soil chemistry of the potting soil and your garden soil will have time to even out. If the new planting is mulched the roots will be better protected from cold due to heat from the earth. The only drawback, as you point out, is the need to water the new plant until the soil freezes. That isn’t much water–the pot soil dries out faster than garden soil, so usually only the original soil ball needs to be watered. Unless it’s a big tree, a gallon or two of water every 2-3 days is sufficient.

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  5. One factor not mentioned is the location – here in the southern US, it is considered an advantage to plant in fall because our most stressful season for plants is the heat and drought of summer. Our soils do not freeze in winter and are still warm well into the end of the year. And if plants are already in the ground early in spring (February, in most places) root growth can begin early as soil warms and days lengthen. So fall planting gives them 3 seasons of growth to establish strong roots before they have to deal with summer’s heat stress. Of course this would be different where winters are harsher and summers shorter and/or milder.

    Reply
    • “here in the southern US, it is considered an advantage to plant in fall because our most stressful season for plants is the heat and drought of summer. ” – the post never suggested summer planting. In areas where the soil never gets vey cold than fall planting is better because roots can grow all winter long.

      I did look for some data on this but found none.

      Reply

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