There are so many benefits to planting trees in a home landscape. They add year-round beauty to your property (and boost its value!), provide habitat and food for wildlife, and clean the air. But a newly planted tree needs time to establish a root system and settle into its new site. Therefore when you plant a tree can have a big impact on its future health. Keep reading if you’re ready to learn the best time to plant trees.
The best time to plant trees
There are several factors that influence the best time to plant trees; your region, the type of tree you want to plant, and the time you have to care for a newly planted tree.
- Region – Location plays a big part in timing. I live in the northeast with cool, often wet springs, hot summers, long autumns, and cold winters. Trees are typically planted here in spring or fall. A gardener in a warmer climate may find better success planting in late winter or mid to late fall. If you’re not sure the best time to plant in your specific region, ask the experts at your local garden centre.
- Type of tree – There are two types of trees: deciduous and coniferous. Deciduous trees, like maple and birch, drop their leaves in autumn. Conifers, often called evergreens, have needle or scale like leaves which are held throughout the winter months. The two types of trees have similar growing needs, but unlike deciduous trees, conifers don’t go dormant in winter. They continue to transpire water and therefore have slightly different ideal planting times.
- Your time – In many ways, the best time to plant trees is when you have time to care for newly planted trees. That means getting out your garden hose to provide regular water during those first few months. Giving a tree a good head start is essential to its long term health.
The best time to plant deciduous trees
Deciduous trees like birch, maple, and oak are best planted in spring or fall. In spring a newly transplanted deciduous tree has two tasks: to develop roots and to photosynthesize by producing leaves. To meet both demands, a spring-planted deciduous tree needs a lot of water. If you wish to plant in spring, be ready to water often.
In autumn deciduous trees lose their leaves and can concentrate on root growth. You’ll still need to water regularly to make sure the tree is ready for winter, but this is a good time to plant. Whether you plant in spring or fall, mulch with shredded bark after planting. Mulch suppresses weed growth and retains moisture. Plus mulching a fall-planted tree helps protect and insulate the roots for winter.
The best time to plant evergreen trees
Evergreens, or conifers like pine, spruce, and fir are best planted in early to late spring or early to mid autumn. In my zone 5 region that is April to early June and September and October. If you can, wait until there is a cloudy or drizzly day to transplant. This further reduces stress to the plant. Once planted, water deeply.
Planting trees in spring
Spring is the main season for planting trees, shrubs, and perennials. There are many reasons for this but the biggest one is that gardeners are excited to get back outside after a long winter. Below are some of the benefits and drawbacks to planting trees in the spring.
Benefits of planting trees in spring:
- Early start – Planting a tree in spring gives the tree an early start in the growing season. It can then spend the summer and autumn settling in and building a root system before the cold weather arrives.
- Selection – In spring nurseries and garden centres are typically well stocked with the greatest selection of species and varieties.
- Weather – For many gardeners spring is the best time to plant trees because of the weather. The temperature is going up, the soil is still cool (which is good for root growth), and there is often plenty of rain.
Drawbacks of planting trees in spring:
- Weather – Weather is one reason to plant trees in spring, but it’s also a reason that it may be a challenge to get a tree in the ground. Depending on where you garden, spring weather can be unpredictable. Late snowfalls, long periods of rain, or an early heat wave can make it a challenge to plant.
- Watering – Trees planted in spring spend their first year growing both roots and leaves. This requires a lot of water, especially when spring turns to summer. If you live in a region with hot, dry summers plant as soon as the soil is workable in early spring and up to a month before the heat sets in.
Planting trees in fall
Many gardeners prefer to plant trees in autumn when the heat of summer has passed and the weather is cooler. Here are benefits and drawbacks to fall planting.
Benefits of planting trees in fall:
- Weather – In many regions autumn offers cooler air temperatures, warm soil, and increased moisture over summer. These are prime conditions for tree planting.
- Root growth – When deciduous trees are planted in autumn they can concentrate on building roots without the added stress of producing new top growth.
- Sales – You may not find as large a selection of species and varieties as you would in spring, but in autumn you may get a good deal. Many garden centres and nurseries mark down their trees at the end of the season so they don’t have to store them for winter.
Drawbacks of planting trees in fall:
- Weather – Once again, weather can work in your favor or against you. If an early freeze happens before the tree can start to push out new roots, that leaves it vulnerable to drying out. This is a big issue with newly planted evergreen trees that need steady moisture to prevent winter desiccation. Plan to plant at least four to six weeks before the ground freezes. Deciduous trees are more forgiving and can be planted later into autumn.
Can you plant trees in summer?
You’ve probably noticed that landscapers plant trees from early spring through late autumn, and sometimes even later! They need to get them in the ground whenever they can but as home gardeners we usually have more control over when we plant trees. Summer isn’t the ideal time to plant, unless you live in a region with cool summers.
If you really want to plant a tree in summer buy one in a plastic pot, not one that is balled and burlapped. A tree grown in a plastic pot likely already has a decent root system. That means it’s less likely to experience transplant shock when planted in summer. A balled and burlapped tree is one that was dug up and then covered with burlap to hold it together. This harvesting process is stressful on the tree and removes a good portion of the root system. Balled and burlapped trees are best planted in spring or autumn.
Also, don’t forget that newly planted trees are thirsty and planting in summer means more work for you. Hot weather and dry soil can stress out a tree and if you don’t keep up with watering you may notice the leaves dry up or even fall off.
How often to water a newly planted tree?
As noted above a newly planted tree requires regular irrigation. The time of year and weather plays a role in how often you need to water but expect to water often. There are several ways to irrigate a tree. You can water by hand with a hose or a watering can or use a soaker hose to apply a slow and steady stream of moisture. If you have a rain barrel you can also use the collected water to irrigate a newly planted tree. It’s often warmer than water from an outdoor tap and less shocking to the tree.
There is a wrong way to water. Don’t give the soil a daily light sprinkle of water. It’s important to water deeply each time you irrigate a newly planted tree. For small trees give them two to three gallons of water every time you irrigate. For larger trees, give them at least five to six gallons of water. I like to use a two gallon watering can to help me measure the amount of water I’m apply. Or, I use a hose with a two-foot long watering wand which is an easy way to apply water right to the root zone. Read more about watering trees in this article by Gardener’s Supply Company.
I also recommend mulching around trees with bark mulch after planting. A two to three inch deep layer on the surface helps the soil retain moisture and reduces weed growth. Don’t pile the mulch up around the trunk – no mulch volcanoes! Instead, leave a two inch space between the trunk and the layer of mulch.
Tree watering schedule:
- Week 1 and 2 – Water daily
- Week 3 to 10 – Water twice a week
- For the remainder of that first year water weekly
By year two you shouldn’t need to water regularly. That said, if there is a prolonged period of drought, it’s a good idea to deep water every few weeks. I also like to water my evergreen and broad-leafed evergreen trees and shrubs in late autumn to make sure they’re fully hydrated going into winter. This can reduce winter damage and desiccation.
For help in selecting trees for your landscape and more info on planting and growing, check out the detailed book Trees, Shrubs & Hedges for Your Home: Secrets for Selection and Care.
For more articles on trees, be sure to check out these posts:
- The best trees and shrubs for privacy
- Flowering trees for home gardens: 21 beautiful choices
- Dwarf evergreen trees: 15 choices for year-round interest
- Narrow trees for small gardens and tight spaces
- Beautiful weeping trees for the home garden
Now that we know the best time to plant trees, are you going to plant any trees in your garden this year?
Nancy Joiner says
I bought 19 evergreens in pots in December. I have them on my back porch. Should I keep them there till Spring or place them in the backyard in the pots still. I’m in zone 7, South Carolina near Spartanburg.
Niki Jabbour says
Hi Nancy, for such specific info – and with such a large quality of trees – we recommend you call a local nursery or the store where you purchased the trees for advice. It’s very late in the season to plant trees, even in zone 7, but if they are left unprotected in a driveway or backyard they may be damaged if the temperatures dip too low. A local expert can advise with info specific to your geographic location. Good luck!!