A question that I (and my fruit-growing family) have often wondered is, “When is the best time to plant fruit trees?”. In other words—”Is it better to plant in spring or fall?”. After not finding a good answer online, I dove in a bit deeper with the research. Here’s what I found.
Generally, it’s best to plant fruit trees in the fall as they’ll have 2-3 months of moist, cool weather in which they can establish roots and adapt to the environment. However, this depends on frost. For early frost (October-November), plant in the spring. For late frost (December-February), plant in the fall.
So, while we should plant fruit trees based on our hardiness zone and when we can avoid extreme temperatures, which season is technically better, and what’s the best way to plant fruit trees?
Why Fall Is The Best Season to Plant Fruit Trees
Fruit trees are best planted in the fall since the mild weather allows for the tree’s roots to get established and ready to take advantage of the vigorous growth in the spring. Spring is the second-best time to plant. Fruit trees can generally be planted any time, as long as the weather isn’t extreme for a few months.
When I first saw that fall was best for planting fruit trees, I was skeptical. After all, ALL of the gardening stores and nurseries sell their plants in the spring. Plus, I was always taught that planting in the spring was best. So, why should I believe that fruit trees do better in the autumn?
The thing is, while planting fruit trees in the early spring is still good, planting in the fall is better. The shorter days in the fall allow for milder temperatures and more consistent soil moisture. It’s also the perfect amount of time for the tree to get adjusted before its winter dormancy and explosive spring growth.
While some fruit trees such as citrus trees are evergreen and don’t go through a state of dormancy in the winter, the fair and more predictable fall weather still allows for a better growing environment than the spring and summer.
Overall, fruit trees that are planted in the fall have less stress from water and weather. This is partly due to the autumn rains being much slower to dry than in the spring and summer. On the other hand, fruit trees that are planted in the spring and summer can experience intense heat and require excessive watering to survive.
And planting in the spring and summer can invite a big problem.
When fruit trees experience intense heat stress from the spring and summer, they don’t sweat like humans, but instead, release moisture through the underside of their leaves. This process is called transpiration and it helps cool the plants, along with other benefits such as nutrient uptake and the ability to survive more intense drought stress (source).
So, the hotter the weather, the more energy the tree uses to transpire and survive, and the less energy it has to use to establish its root system. This drain of resources can quickly stunt or kill the tree.
By the way, if you’d like more information about the best drought-tolerant fruit trees, you can check out my other post: 30 Best Drought-Tolerant Fruit and Nut Trees (Ranked).
After realizing the high temperatures and water demands that come with spring and summer, along with the tree’s increase in transpiration, it became more apparent that planting in the fall had more benefits.
However, this can still pose a problem as most gardening stores only sell their fruit trees in the spring. So, how do we plant fruit trees if they’re only available in the spring?
If you can only get new fruit trees in the spring, aim to plant them as early as possible, before the hot summer approaches. However, you can also buy the fruit tree and care for it in its temporary container while waiting for the fall. This way you can also easily shelter it if the summer weather gets too hot.
By keeping fruit trees in their temporary pot and waiting for the fall, you can always move them into some shade, or even indoors if the weather gets too hot. This of course wouldn’t work for planted fruit trees, which would have to suffer through the extreme weather—potentially impairing their growth or killing them.
Planting in the fall is helpful in the majority of cases, especially in drier climates such as California, Nevada, and Arizona.
The shorter days in the fall provide less heat and humidity stress for the plants, meaning you’ll likely water them much less. And since you’ll provide your fruit trees with little to no water in the fall, think of it like getting 3-4 months of (almost) free watering.
In the spring, the tree’s roots will have already been established during the fall, and are ready to absorb the entire spring season, including the heavy spring rains. Compare this to fruit trees that are planted in the spring, which are usually still adapting and missing out on these advantages.
However, as above, if you have an early frost—your best bet is to plant in the spring.
The Best Way to Plant Fruit Trees
The best way to plant fruit trees is to select a site that has sandy, loamy soil, and dig a hole twice the height and width of the temporary pot. Remove the fruit tree gently and place it into the ground, measuring the top of the ground with where the potting soil was previously touching the tree.
But, not all of us have the sandy, loamy soil that fruit trees love so much. Many of us (me included) have heavy clay soil. So, how do we plant fruit trees then?
Fruit trees can grow in clay soil as long as it drains well. However, it’s generally best to avoid planting in clay soil due to its poor drainage and alkalinity. Instead, plant fruit trees on 1 to 2-foot mounds of garden soil on top of the ground and add 1-foot of mulch. Expand the mound as the tree grows.
If you’d like to see more about planting fruit trees in clay soil, feel free to check out my other post: Can Fruit Trees Grow in Clay Soil (& How To Plant Them)?.
Like many plants, fruit trees are vulnerable to transplant shock, which can take up to a year for them to recover from. To help avoid transplant shock, I like to plant with the following steps in mind:
- Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
- Remove as much of the tree’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
- Grab the base of the tree’s trunk and wiggle lightly
- Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
- Lightly place the tree in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
- Make sure the soil is at the same level on the trunk as before
- Apply 1-2 inches of compost and mulch to the top of the soil
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
More Tips to Care For Fruit Trees
- Only water fruit trees when the first 2-4 inches of soil are dry. This is one of the best practices to prevent over and under-watering. You can get a moisture meter to check this, but I prefer using my finger to check.
- Provide fruit trees with 2 inches of each compost and mulch. Compost greatly improves the soil’s richness and water retention (source), while mulch dramatically reduces evaporation and the transition of soil into dirt.
- While many fruit trees are self-pollinating, cross-pollination has been shown to improve the size and number of fruits. If you’d like more information on fruit tree pollination, check out my post on apple tree pollination.
- Avoid fertilizing in the winter, especially if you’re using chemical fertilizer. While evergreen trees typically won’t mind, deciduous trees such as apple and cherry trees go dormant in the winter and don’t need nutrients (they normally store what they use since the ground is frozen and inaccessible).
- Companion plants provide fruit trees with many benefits including an increase in pollination, fruit sets, and pest resistance. I recently wrote a post about this that you might find helpful—The 10 Best Companion Plants for Fruit Trees.
Hopefully, you found this information helpful (I know I did)!
However, if you’d like more help with your fruit trees, consider reaching out to your local cooperative extension since they are the most familiar with your specific growing zone and its challenges.