In thinking about the seasons, it’s common to associate them with the state of the natural world.
Generally, the perception around nature and its seasonal activities is that things bloom in spring, flourish in summer, die in fall, and freeze in winter.
Broadly, this makes a lot of sense. Plants thrive in the sun and fall victim to frost. However, growing seasons are a bit more complex than that.
Actually, as far as many experienced gardeners are concerned, the best time to plant new life in your yard is in the fall, especially if you’re fond of fruit trees.
Keep reading to learn about the advantages of planting fruit trees in the fall and how to care for your fall fruit crop safely!
Reasons Why Planting Fruit Trees in Fall is a Good Idea
Of all the potential crops to start in the fall, fruit trees, in particular, are known to flourish in the autumnal season.
For the most part, spring is a great time for growing flowering and ornamental plants. As the ground thaws and the sun shines longer, many plants are eager to reproduce.
However, the same can’t always be said for fruit trees. In fact, spring can be pretty stressful for fruit trees, resulting in less success and lower yield.
In the warmer weather that spring and summer usually bring, plants will transpire, essentially sweating to keep themselves cool, just like humans.
And more often than not, the moisture plants draw to complete the transpiration process comes from the roots. Plants without a well-developed root system, such as young fruit trees, will suffer.
If a plant cannot transpire, its growth and foliage will dehydrate and die. Leaves absorb the sun, effectively feeding the plant. Without leaves, trees cannot photosynthesize.
Clearly, for new plants, spring can be an exceptionally stressful growing time.
However, in the fall, most plants grow dormant on the surface, though in actuality, they’re busy sending food and energy to their roots.
Most fruit trees don’t produce in late summer through fall, so there’s no need to worry about a misallocation of resources.
All in all, fall planting creates an optimal foundation for fruit trees to flourish in the spring.
Putting Down Roots
Summarily, fall planting gives you a leg up on the spring growing season, leading to better fruiting once the roots have had the time and resources to settle.
Almost all fruit trees that you purchase from a nursery have what’s called a rootstock, which is the established root system of a related species.
Basically, the young fruit tree has been grafted onto the stump of an established fruit tree. This allows for the grower to control the size of the tree better and make care a bit more manageable.
Fruit tree rootstocks range from extreme dwarf to vigorous. Dwarf trees will do better in containers on the patio, while vigorous trees are more akin to an orchard-size tree.
Fruit trees found in nurseries or garden centers are usually a few years old already and have been grafted onto a rootstock, meaning that once you replant them, those roots are ready to dig in and get established.
This is just another reason why fall planting works so well for fruit trees. They need the acclimation period once replanted, and with the addition of the rootstock, fall planting allows fast and hardy growth in the coming spring.
Sunlight and Temperature
As previously stated, the temperature advantages of planting fruit trees in the fall are huge.
The cooler temperatures cause your plants significantly less stress than warmer spring planting. This also means that your fall-planted fruit trees will require a lot less water.
Though warmth and sunlight are wonderful for your plants within reason, excessive amounts of either can make it tough for your fruit trees to settle in.
With these cooler temps and moist, or even frozen, soil, the tree’s root system is far less likely to dry out.
It’s a common misconception to think your fruit trees or other plants died from a particularly rough frost or cold snap.
While this is certainly a possibility, people often mistake their fruit trees dying from starvation for dying from a freeze.
If spring planted, fruit trees may not have been able to transpire the way they needed to store enough food and make it through the winter.
In addition to the less stressful temperatures, fall also comes with more “chill hours.”
“Chill hours” refer to the time periods when the outside temperature roughly falls within the range of 32 to 45ºF. These temperatures, while not cold enough to freeze, trigger a dormancy period in plants.
And with dormancy comes less vigorous growth above ground and more energy dedicated to storing food and protecting themselves from any external triggers.
Ultimately, “chill hours” do wonders for establishing a strong root system in the fall that is ready to foster some beautiful growth in the spring!
However, too many of these “chill hours” or temperatures that drop even lower can cause their own stress to your fall-planted fruit trees.
Before you plant, be sure you do some research and select varieties that are cold hardy and work well in your growing zone.
Even when the ground is cool, fruit trees will still draw the nutrients they need from the soil. And when the ground is frozen, they don’t require watering at all.
Though watering needs are species-specific to an extent, the fact of the matter is all new plants need careful watering. Again, transpiration plays a big role in the watering needs of fruit trees planted in the fall.
Too hot of an environment forces the tree to give off moisture, making it thirstier and in need of excess water that may not be available.
Once more, fall proves itself the superior planting season, as fruit trees planted then require way less water to achieve the same results.
Planting Fruit Trees in Fall: A Growing Guide
The process of planting fruit trees remains much the same regardless of season, but there are a few tips and adjustments you can make to ensure that planting fruit trees in the fall will be successful for you.
First, you’ll want to dig a hole about twice the size of the nursery pot in width but the same depth, giving the root ball plenty of room to establish and grow out, but not so deep that it stunts growth.
You’ll want to ensure the area is clear of any weeds or perennials that might compete with your fruit tree for resources.
Place the tree in the hole and cover any remaining holes or dips with compost. The base of the tree truck, where the truck meets the root ball, should sit just above ground level.
Water the roots and area around the tree generously. You won’t need to water your tree quite so much in the future, but when first established, it needs all the moisture and nutrients it can get.
If you’re concerned about your transplants getting enough water off the bat, you can soak the roots in a bucket of water for a few hours before planting the tree in the ground.
Once planted and watered, cover the base of the fruit tree with a layer of mulch. Mulching the tree will help to retain moisture, as well as protect the roots from any heavy, damaging periods of frost.
Until winter sets in, continue to water your fruit trees every three to five days.
When it comes to spacing your fall-planted fruit trees, this will largely depend on the tree’s rootstock.
If planted in the ground and not in containers, you’ll want to space dwarf trees 8 to 10 feet apart with at least 10 feet between rows.
Add at least 2 feet for every increase in rootstock size. If you’re unsure about spacing, especially for fruit trees with a vigorous rootstock, check variety-specific advice on how to plant your fruit trees.
It’s typically considered good practice to stake newly fall-planted trees. If you do choose to stake your tree, be careful not to drive the stake through the rootball.
Instead, place the stakes a few feet away from the tree and use garden twine, wire, or even an old hose to secure the tree.
When planting fruit trees, it’s very tempting to want to fertilize to your heart’s content. However, when planting fruit trees in the fall, you’ll want to skip the fertilizer.
Typically, fertilizer encourages healthy blooming and leaf production. For fall-planted fruit trees, we want to avoid our tree focusing its energy on reproduction above ground.
The aim of planting fruit trees in the fall is to keep as much of the nutrients in the roots as possible. In this instance, fertilizer could actually negatively impact a fruit tree’s ability to survive fall planting.
Instead, try incorporating compost into the mulch and soil around the base of the tree to encourage strong, healthy roots.
If you struggle with pests, especially larger pests like voles, squirrels, or deer, you’ll want to take great care to protect your young fall-planted fruit trees so all your efforts don’t go to waste.
One way to do so is to use tree collars, mesh baskets, or wire fencing as a barrier.
Since voles are particularly tricky and like to get to the tree from underground, you’ll want to ensure the barrier reaches a few inches below ground to protect the roots.
As far as pruning your fruit trees go, you’ll want to prune structurally in the winter and functionally in the summer.
It’s also a good idea to prune back the fruit and large amounts of foliage growth before they develop in the tree’s first year to help direct the tree’s energy toward establishing its roots,
The trickiest aspect of planting fruit trees in the fall, or really any time, is understanding how pollination works for your trees.
Though there are self-pollinating or self-fertile varieties out there, most fruit trees are not self-pollinating and require the same variety of trees with the same blooming period nearby.
With this in mind, it’s just as important to select a pollination-compatible tree for your area as it is to pick one that’s right for your growing zone.
If you live in an urban area, this is less of a concern. The potential for cross-pollination from surrounding trees is plentiful, as you have ample pollinators and pollinizers.
But if you live somewhere a bit more secluded, you’ll have to tackle the cross-pollination project on your own.
When purchasing your fruit tree from a nursery, pollination information will be readily available for you.
Best Fruit Trees to Plant in Fall
Once you’ve determined your growing zone, you’ll then want to identify what varieties are cold hardy for your area.
Hardiness refers to the plant’s ability to withstand frosts in relation to your area. When planting fruit trees in the fall, understanding this information is crucial.
Filtering the fruit trees that interest you by cold hardiness and pollinizer compatibility in your area should leave you with a pretty concise list of varieties to try planting this fall.
But of course, amongst those different fruits are hundreds of different varieties, all with specific growing conditions and requirements.
Overall, they all still need good sun and protection from frosts.
Planting Fruit Trees in Fall: FAQs
Can I only plant fruit trees in the fall?
Certainly not! You can plant fruit trees at any point from spring through fall.
Depending on the species and variety, certain trees will take better to certain points in the growing season.
Planting fruit trees in the fall is just one suggestion to help you achieve the orchard of your dreams.
What is the best temperature for planting fruit trees in the fall?
As long as the temperature is below 80ºF and your trees are dormant, you’re safe to plant your fruit trees.
However, the more “chill hours,” the better.
Wrapping Up the Guide to Planting Fruit Trees in the Fall
Planting fruit trees in fall gives your trees all winter long to settle into their new home and put down roots.
If you’ve struggled to establish fruit trees in the past, have a go at this method and see if planting fruit trees in the fall works for you!
For more fruit tree planting tips, check out our page all about fruit gardening!
- About the Author
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Leah is a writer, editor, and content manager with Minneopa Orchards and holds a master’s degree in English.
She grew up in the south and enjoyed long growing seasons spent in her father’s lush vegetable garden. Buying produce from the store was unheard of in her house!
As such, Leah enjoys writing about gardening and sharing her knowledge and experiences with others.
Leah can be reached at email@example.com