Fall fruit tree planting can be rewarding!
If you can find fruit trees in the fall, you can often plant up to the time the ground starts freezing. As long as you can still dig a hole in the ground, you can usually plant. There are some caveats though!
When you get your bareroot fruit trees from Grandpa’s Orchard this November, we encourage you to plant them just as soon as you can. Try not to leave them in the box, waiting. Trees shipped in the fall are not as dormant as spring trees. Mostly because the “energy flow” in the trees is going down toward the roots in the fall, and in the spring the “energy flow” is going from the roots to the tops.
During the winter, when fruit trees are fully dormant there is little physiological activity in the trees. They are not dead, but they should be soundly “asleep” and responding only slightly to weather factors, such as extreme cold or heat spells. They sense the change of seasons, by accumulating “chill hours” which add up sufficiently to help them break dormancy in the spring. Extreme changes from cold to hot, and vice versa, sometimes will make them come out of dormancy prematurely or go back into a sleep period. Regardless, most trees that have sufficiently hardened off in the fall and fallen “asleep” are sure to survive the winter quite well.
In the spring, when the trees have sensed that spring has sprung and the weather is warm enough, they will start to transport food reserves in the roots to the tops. In the spring you will see buds swell, blossoms open up, and leaves start to unfurl. Before the leaves are fully unfurled, the trees are essentially dependent on the sugar and food reserves that have been stored in the roots and available for growth. Therefore, in the spring, “energy” is going up the tree and being spent.
In the summer, when fruit trees have fully leafed out, they start to harvest the energy from the sun and combine it with the nutrients in the soil. Their roots seek out the carbon dioxide in the air to produce sugars and other energy sources. These will support the fruits that have set from the blossoms, as well as store new reserves in their root systems. In the summer, “energy” is being built up and spent, so the flow actually goes both ways.
As summer ends and fall begins, the fruit trees sense the change in day length and weather. They then start to set terminal buds and slow shoot growth. Also, their leaves start to grow “old” and prepare to drop while many of the nutrients in the leaves are removed and start to transport down into the roots. That way, in the fall, the general “energy” flow is down towards the roots. It is best to keep trees as healthy as possible during the summer, so that they can harvest the most energy and transport it down into the roots so it is available for the next coming spring.
Fall can be a good time to plant, because fall planted trees can still get established in the soil and their root systems will still expand somewhat for storing up food. As it turns out, these trees are already better established come spring time than the previous spring planted trees. You will usually see them beome more vigorous and advanced than those trees as well.
When you get your bareroot trees in the fall, make sure the holes you dig are large and deep enough to accommodate all the roots. Avoid cramming them in, or bent roots will continue to circle. The goal is for the roots to “escape” the confines of the original hole and grow out with the top of the tree the following years. While you may want to add a richer top soil or other additives to the planting hole, Grandpa doesn’t feel that it’s necessary, because it is possible to create too much of a “pot” effect. If the pot has a much better soil environment than the rest of the backyard orchard, the tree will tend to keep its root system in the pot and not spread out the way it should. Some soil needs to be amended because they are so poorly compacted. This can often be the case where new homes have been built and the builders didn’t pay enough attention to the soils around the house.
Use good judgment when amending soils. If you have a good, natural soil to work with, then you may not need or want to amend it. If you have fill sand or clay soils, then consider amending quite a large area where you will plant the tree so that you don’t end up with a small “pot” of good soil at the base of the tree. Make sure that your soil is compacted sufficiently around the roots to eliminate any pockets of air, that way the roots are well in contact with the soil into which they will grow.
Be careful of the soil amendments you use. Composted organic matter like leaves and manure are good, but be careful that they are well through their cycle of composting and are not actively still in the process of composting, or “raw”. Poop straight from the critter has a lot of things in it that can burn the roots, while manure that has been composted and well “rested” will lose much of the detrimental factors and leave a nutrient rich, high carbon, organic material. Avoid sawdust based composts, often they will continue to rob the soil of nitrogen as they continue to decompose. Also, with the heavy use of certain herbicides on lawns, some of these herbicides are systemic and can linger in the compost and cause the trees to not thrive. If you buy top soil or compost from someone else, be sure to ask its origin and whether or not herbicides have been used on it.
Mulching around the tree with leaves, bark, commercial mulches, ground cloths, etc. can reduce weeds and maintain soil moisture which is a good practice to use.
On fall planted trees, Grandpa recommends that you don’t fertilize right away so that you don’t encourage the tree to wake up and start growing again. You want the tree to continue to go dormant naturally. Wait on fertilizing until the late winter or early spring, just as the trees are starting to “wake up”.
Also, Grandpa recommends that you NOT trim fall planted trees for the same reasons. Remember, there is still energy in those branches and trunks that is working its way back down into the root systems. In the spring they will rely on that energy to grow.
Make sure that you protect trees from “critters” in the winter. Put your spiral tree wraps in place to protect them from mouse and rabbit damage. If deer are present, you may need to fence them out or put cages around the trees to keep them from bruising or rubbing.
Sometimes in the early fall, the weather will take an unusual change for the worse. While the snow may seem to be the problem, it is usually an extreme change in temperature that can cause damage to newly planted trees, including trees planted the previous spring. If there is still active growth or a lot of sap in the trees, extreme cold snaps where the temperatures goes well below freezing too early in the fall season, can cause the sap to freeze, bark and trunks to split, and possible death of the tree. A lot of times there is no way to protect the trees because the changes are too extreme. However, if you have just a few trees to care for, and you know an extreme cold weather event is about to happen, you might be able to help them by wrapping or covering the trunks with an insulating material like straw or hay. In Michigan, Grandpa has learned that most peach crops are lost in the fall, because of an untimely early cold snap near Thanksgiving that might happen every 10-20 years or so. If it is a warm fall, and the trees go dormant too late, they are more susceptible to these extreme temperature changes.
Water is not often a limiting factor in the fall, unless you live in a very arid climate. In most places there is sufficient rain and moisture for fall planted trees. But if you are concerned, make sure that the soil is always moist, but not soaking wet, around the trees. If you get a lot of rain and things do get soaked, don’t be too concerned. In the fall fruit trees typically can withstand wetter conditions because their roots are not as active as they are during the summer. However, don’t let them dry out either. If you can grab a handful of soil and it clumps together tightly without falling apart, then your moisture level is right where it needs to be.
The fall planted fruit tree should “wake up” in the spring pretty much in tune with other trees around it. If it is really slow to start, contact Grandpa for some advice.
Good luck! A fall planted tree might produce fruit about a year earlier than most spring planted ones.
- One of Grandpa’s nurseryman friends wrote this book, which is an excellent starter book for the Backyard Fruit Grower.
- Grandpa was a fruit grower all his life, so he became a real fountain of backyard fruit growing knowledge, which he shares onGrandpa’s Growing Tips.