Now is the time to plant trees, really!!
Everything shuts down in the winter, even your yard so why would anyone in their right mind consider messing with their yard in the middle of winter? For those of us in the industry I suppose we have nothing better to do, but there are good reasons why you might want to consider winter as a good season to make some changes to your landscape, specifically planting trees. Seasons change and so do trees. With every season comes advantages and sometimes challenges with regard to planting and maintaining trees, from how easy they are to transport and how difficult they are to plant to the amount of care needed once they are in their new environment.
One of the questions that comes up over and over again this time of year is “can you really plant trees in the winter?” The answer almost seems shocking to customers when they hear, “Of course! Trees can be planted in any season, even in the winter.” The truth is, winter is actually a good time to plant trees. For the most part trees go dormant over the winter. They have lost their leaves which makes them easier to transport with less chance of damaging or stressing them. Also, dormant trees are no longer taking up nutrients. Trees really only take up nutrients during the growing season, early spring and early fall. Those stored nutrients are taken up into their foliage. In the fall those nutrients are then stored in the root system when the trees go dormant. The point of that is, it’s nice to have a tree in the ground and established before it starts taking up nutrients in early April, otherwise you can disrupt their growth cycle. Another advantage to planting in the winter is trees are ordinarily dug in the late fall after they have lost their leaves but before the ground is frozen. They can be dug in the winter months when the ground is not frozen but generally they are dug in the early spring months prior to when they begin producing leaves. That means if you can find the tree you are looking for generally you’re assured of getting a freshly dug tree. As with anything, the fresher the better.
So, why not plant trees in the winter months, and why do some trees die when planted in the winter? For one thing, many landscape companies and nurseries almost shut down during the winter months. At times it may be hard to find a good selection of trees and a company that will install them due to the seasonal nature of the industry. If you do locate the tree you want and find someone to plant it, “be patient.” Timing is important. If the ground is frozen it takes more work to get the trees planted. Backfilling becomes more difficult and sometimes requires extra ingredients or soil because frozen ground comes out in chunks. To properly backfill, the soil needs to be broken up so it settles and packs in around the tree.
Probably the biggest misconception and reason many trees don’t make it through the winter is underwatering. Even dormant trees need water, especially newly planted ones. Winter is a dry season in the Midwest. Snow doesn’t accumulate like inches of rain. Most people don’t like to hook up hoses to water plants in the winter, and understandably so. Who wants to water after everything has been winterized and put away for the winter, but that’s what’s necessary to keep them alive.
This wouldn’t be complete without also explaining the other seasons and what their advantages and disadvantages are when it comes to planting trees. Spring is wonderful for planting trees if you want the best season where nature provides the most amount of care. In the Midwest, spring is our wettest season providing plenty of natural rainfall and limiting the amount of care needed. Nurseries and landscape companies are operational and plant material is fresh. Life is good, right? In some ways yes, but there are a few downsides to planting trees in the spring. For one, trees can go through a bit of a shock when they are growing leaves, trying to take up nutrients, and being transported from one environment to another, but that being said, it’s hard to go wrong planting in spring. If you want the best selection, pick your tree out early though. Availability can become scarce and if you want it planted for you, good installation companies can get booked out 6 to 8 weeks.
Summer is probably the most difficult time of year for trees in general, but especially new plantings. There’s no hardfast rule that trees can’t be planted in the summer. Actually it’s to the contrary. Trees can be planted in the summer, however, don’t expect to plant a tree and walk away. It will require more guidance in the form of water. That and shade are the only protection from the extreme heat we see in the Midwest summers. That being said, the advantage to planting trees in the summer is sometimes you can get better deals since many nurseries are slowing down and selling off their spring stock. Finding someone to plant on short notice isn’t usually a problem either, so there’s not much wait time. Also, summer planted trees can have an advantage over fall planted trees because they have a better chance at developing root structure before the soil temperatures get too cold.
Moving on to early fall, trees begin to take up nutrients again and can be touchy to transport. Although trees are at their best value from a monetary standpoint, this isn’t the freshest season to buy trees. Once they lose their leaves later in the fall, trees can once again be dug and the opportunity to find fresh trees is more probable. At that point you are in what’s considered one of the industry’s best time frames to plant trees. The temperatures are good. There’s generally some rainfall. The trees are fresh, and they have all winter and spring to get acclimated to their new home before the harsh summer hits, giving them ample opportunity for survival. Once again, the mistake that is most common is over-winter watering to make sure they survive.
Regardless of the season, there are some things you should watch out for when buying trees. Most people are concerned about the shape of the tree first and foremost. Trees can and will grow into a good shape given time, but trees that have not been grown and pruned correctly will present you problems in the future. Incidentally, late winter is the best time to prune trees and shrubs. In most trees, look for a strong central leader, meaning one lead branch coming out of the top of the tree. There are a few varieties that have more than one leader so do your research before you buy. Do not buy a tree that has an undersized root ball for the size of the tree either. The more roots and soil that you get with the tree the better. Be careful when buying trees in containers. If trees are grown in containers or kept in containers too long they can develop root girdling. This is when the roots grow in circles. It will surely stunt the growth of the tree as well as keep the roots from growing directly outward which helps the stability and health of the tree. Lastly, and this may seem elementary, make sure the tree is alive when you buy it, especially in the fall and winter once it has lost its leaves. No reputable nursery is going to sell you a tree that isn’t alive, but trust me, we’ve seen our share of dead trees. If you need to, break off just a little branch. If it breaks easily or snaps off, the tree has problems.
Trees can be planted in all seasons and no season is a sure bet that the tree will live. Every season has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s really up to you to decide the best time and what you’ll need to do on your end to ensure the tree survives, but just remember, if you’re itching to see some changes in your yard, don’t discount the winter months. No time is a bad time to give back to nature.
Curtis Stroud, owner
Rosehill Gardens, Inc.