Why Do Experienced Gardeners Recommend Fall Planting?

Experienced gardeners prefer fall planting. Not for all plants, but for a great many that the beginner seldom thinks of setting out except in spring.

Unless you are in a very cold section of the country, roses planted in fall take hold better than spring-set bushes.

Fall plantingPin

So do most fruit trees and bushes, other deciduous trees and shrubs, and many evergreens.

The majority of hardy perennials, too, respond best when moved in autumn rather than in spring.

Why Fall Planting Is Every Gardener’s Best Friend

Fall planting is advantageous to the gardener too. Over most of North America, spring is short. Its days all too crowded.

Despite carefully made plans and the best intentions, it is usually physically impossible to accomplish all the planting and other work needed. 

This is true if you do the work yourself; it is so if you hire professional help.

In the mad rush of spring, skilled gardeners and nurserymen seem almost as scarce as the proverbial hen’s tooth.

And if you succeed in corralling one (or more), chances are he will be so rushed that your planting may be done less carefully than had you employed him at a more leisurely season.

A wet spring, like we had over most of the East this year, immensely complicates the problem.

But plantwise, why is fall the best time to set out most material?

The first point to recognize is that the operation we call planting is transplanting.

It consists of moving a living plant from one place to another so that it will become re-established.

Such transplanting is an artificial disturbance.

It rarely occurs in nature, as when a tornado or swollen stream rips a plant from its anchorage and sets it somewhere else, where it takes root. But these are freak accidents.

Plants usually spend their entire lives in the place where nature propagated them.


Transplanting is analogous to an operation on a human being. Parts of the body are cut away, and the physiological processes are disturbed.

Common sense dictates that an operation should be done at a time most favorable to the patient, at the beginning of a period when recuperation is likely to take place most rapidly and when no undue demands are expected to be made upon the patient’s energies

For most plants, fall meets these conditions best.

Let’s examine the reasons why this is so. The above-ground parts of a plant depend upon the roots for water and nutrients, and to find them, roots often travel much greater distances than ordinarily supposed.

A lowly perennial may send some of its feeders down 2, 3, or even more feet, and the spread of these feeders almost invariably far exceeds that of the foliage.

In the case of trees. and shrubs, too; the underground parts usually occupy more space than the stems and leaves.

No matter how carefully transplanting is done, some roots are cut off, and the plant’s ability to supply its stems and leaves with water and nutrients is temporarily reduced.

In fall, with its shorter days, lower temperatures, less intense sunshine, and in many cases, normal loss of foliage, the demands for water and nutrients made by the tops of hardy plants are at a near minimum and decrease as follows day. This is a significant factor.

Roots of fall transplants can continue growth long after the top growth has ceased because the ground beneath remains warm and moist even after the upper inch or two is frozen.

Therefore, new roots generate readily from the cut and broken ends of transplants, enabling them to rapidly re-establish their root systems.

Contrast this with conditions that prevail in spring. Then all factors that favor vigorous top growth, with its resulting heavier demands upon the roots – are at work.

Days are lengthening, the sun strengthening. Winds are stealing water from every stem and leaf.

And as the leaves increase in size and number, the demand for water and nutrients increases correspondingly.

Disadvantages To Fall Planting

Are there any disadvantages to fall planting?

Yes, in some cases, there’s a danger of winter killing.

Winter is the crucial period for plants on the borderline of hardiness in any given locality. Plants are so close to being tender and winter killed anyway that the root disturbance tips the balance against them.

For such plants, spring transplanting is safer because, to survive the winter, these borderline plants need a fully established root system.

Planted in spring, they have a whole growing season in which to re-root before being called upon to face the rigors of winter.

Transplanting done too late for the particular plant type may also result in winter killing. In such cases, there simply is insufficient time for adequate rooting before the undersoil becomes too cold.

Then, too, heaving (soil movement due to alternate freezing and thawing) can tear and break roots, and with smallish items, such as rock garden plants and perennials, this may cause so much damage that serious harm or death results.

However, precautions can be taken to minimize this danger.

On the negative side, one other factor must be taken into account. Experience has proved that a few plants transplant better in spring (preferably late spring) than in fall.

These include some subjects with more or less fleshy roots, such as magnolias and beeches.

If you have any doubts about a particular plant, check with an experienced gardener.

The actual operation of transplanting is the same whether done in fall or spring. Only the details of aftercare differ.

Regardless of the season, the soil must be deeply and thoroughly prepared and in a crumbly rather than pasty condition.

Preparation ordinarily involves loosening the earth to a depth of 10’ inches or more, mixing in a generous amount of organic matter (compost, lea Arnold, rotted manure, peat moss, or commercial humus) and some fertilizer.

Using Slowly Available Fertilizers

In fall, use only slowly available fertilizers such as:

  • Coarse bone meal
  • Pulverized sheep manure
  • Prepared mixtures with much of their nitrogen content in organic form

The quickly soluble, rapid-acting kinds are more advantageous in spring, for these chiefly stimulate leaf growth, which is not of immediate importance in fall.

For certain plants, some soils will need liming. And in some cases, the use of a synthetic soil conditioner may be advisable.

Soil Preparation

The details of preparing the soil depend upon the particular plants to be set out. In any case, see that the preparation is thorough and, if possible, have it completed well before planting.

This gives the earth time to settle somewhat and makes firm planting at the right depth easier.

If you must plant before the soil has settled sufficiently by itself, either tread it until moderately firm (while it is dry enough not to stick to the shoes) or give it a thorough soaking with the hose and then allow it to dry.

Either treatment will settle it enough for planting.

Ideal Hole For Planting

The old admonition that it’s better to put a 10-cent plant in a dollar hole than a dollar plant in a 10-cent hole still holds.

For every plant you install, make a hole sufficiently large to easily accommodate the ball of roots without crowding and to permit you to pack a liberal amount of good soil around the old roots to encourage the growth of new ones.

This is especially important with trees, shrubs, and evergreens planted where the surrounding soil is not specially prepared, as it usually is with herbaceous plants and closely set shrubs.

For a moderate-sized shrub or tree, the hole should be at least 2 feet wider than the spread of the roots – more if the soil is poor, more when big specimens are being moved.

One of the great advantages of fall planting is that purchased nursery stock is then newly dug.

Like most spring-sold plants, it has not been wintered in a nursery cellar or storage shed.

Cautions On Planting

Take care when planting not to let the roots become dry. If the specimens are moved with a ball of soil. as evergreens always should be, and larger trees and shrubs often are, be sure not to break it.

Spread the roots of plants that are moved without a soil ball in the directions in which they run naturally and work good soil between them.

Set the plants at the same depth or only very slightly deeper than they were previously. Firm the soil well, but do not ram it until it is as hard as a road.

Unless rain is imminent, soak the soil immediately after planting and keep it well watered.

Secure fall-planted trees firmly to stakes or guy wires to prevent winter storms from loosening or toppling them over.

Deciduous shrubs rarely need staking, but it is often good to prune, hack, or thin out some branches.

Evergreens (both shrubs and trees) will appreciate a burlap screen if they are exposed to wind or strong winter sun.

Winter Protection

Very important, too, is the subject of winter protection.

For most plants, a mulch 1” or 2” inches deep, 3” or 4” inches for evergreens spread over the ground after it has frozen will delay frost penetration to greater depths and enable roots to grow for a longer period. A mulch will also reduce heaving.

Suitable materials are:

  • Coarse compost
  • Half-rotted leaves
  • Manure
  • Straw
  • Peat moss

However, a mulch of this type is not practicable for ground-hugging plants such as strawberries and many rock garden subjects, which require a light covering of salt hay or evergreen branches. Perennials, too, prefer the latter type of mulch.

Roses require a little different kind of winter protection. After the top inch of the earth has frozen.

Hill the soil high around the bases of the stems to protect the lower buds and fill the hollows between the hills with loose manure or some other mulch material.

Now, look at the best fall planting times for the different plant types. Evergreens should go in first.

These have to support a crop of leaves all winter and so need plenty of time to develop ample roots.

Deciduous trees and shrubs, except those few kinds that move better in spring. may be safely planted considerably later than evergreens.

Put them in any time between the start of natural leaf fall and the first hard ground freeze. Roses should be planted as soon as obtainable, and planting may continue until frost makes it impracticable.

Perennials and biennials should be planted as soon as possible after the first killing frost to enable them to root well before the soil freezes.