Fall planting FAQ

If you thought spring was the best season for planting, you’re not alone. However, there are so many good reasons to plant shrubs, trees, and perennials in fall instead. Our FAQ covers everything you need to know about what, where, and when to plant in fall. 

1. Can I really plant in fall?

Yes! Fall is a fantastic time for planting shrubs, trees, and perennials because the cooler temperatures and shorter days mean less water stress for the plant, and that means less work for you in terms of watering and monitoring your new plants.

2. What makes fall good for planting?

Root development is critical to getting new plants established, and fall weather creates optimum conditions for roots to grow. Since root growth continues until temperatures fall into the low 40s (~5.5°C), that means several weeks, perhaps months, of stress-free conditions for this crucial establishment – the sooner a plant gets established, the sooner it will perform as you see in photos. It’s the perfect way to get a head start on a better landscape for the following season and beyond.

3. Is there anything that shouldn’t be planted in fall?

Fall is ideal for planting almost anything, but there are a few scenarios to avoid, depending on your climate:

– Any plant that isn’t reliably hardy in your area. Exploring a plant’s hardiness potential is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of gardening, however, these types of experiments are best begun in spring, so plants have the longest possible exposure to warm weather to grow the roots they will need to even have a chance of making it through winter.

– Similarly, if a plant typically experiences a lot of damage or dieback over winter in your area, like butterfly bush, bigleaf hydrangeas, or crapemyrtle, it is best spring-planted as well.

– Evergreens, and especially broadleaf evergreens like boxwood, rhododendron, and holly, are best spring-planted in cold climates (USDA zone 6/7 and colder). These plants lose water through their foliage all winter due to sun and wind, but cannot replace it when the ground is frozen. As such, it’s best to give them the longest possible window to get established before winter’s stressors begin. Conifers, especially needle-leafed types like pines, are slightly less susceptible to this issue than broadleaf evergreens, but we’d still advise that cold climate gardeners stick to spring planting for the best results.

4. How late is too late for fall planting?

If you live in a cold climate, you want to have your new plants in the ground at least six weeks before the ground freezes – not first frost or freeze, but before the ground freezes. That’s a tricky date to gauge, as it can vary so much from season to season, so a general guideline, those in USDA zones 2-6 should plan to finish up fall planting by mid-late October, zone 7 by mid-November, and zones 8 and warmer can plant well into December, depending on conditions. Root growth will essentially cease once the ground is frozen, so that six week window provides an opportunity for some establishment. If you scoop up some super late season bargains, or still have unplanted shrubs, it’s always best to plant them than to try to overwinter them in their containers, even if it’s very close to winter.

5. Is there anything special I need to know about preparing the planting site?

No – in terms of digging the hole and actually installing the plant, the process is the same no matter what time of year you plant. Here’s a quick how-to video.

6. Do I still need to water plants that were fall-planted?

Yes. Water well immediately after planting, and monitor watering needs for the next several weeks. Plants are unlikely to need as much water as they would if spring-planted, however, this will depend entirely on the weather you are experiencing. If it is unusually hot and dry, more water will be required. Check water up until the ground freezes, if that occurs in your area – you may need to water even into late November if rainfall is scarce. If you are not confident in your ability to gauge a plant’s water needs, consider purchasing an inexpensive moisture meter.

7. Should I mulch my new plantings?

Absolutely, yes! A good 2-3”/5-7cm layer of shredded bark mulch provides even more ideal conditions for root growth, as well as an extra layer of protection for impending cold. We recommend maintaining this mulch layer all year round.

8. What about fertilizing?

There should be no need to provide any fertilizer for plants installed in autumn. They will have been amply fertilized by the grower or garden center prior to your purchase. Plus, as the plant is already heading toward seasonal dormancy, there’s no need to apply a bunch of fertilizer it cannot use. You may wish to apply a fertilizer the following late winter/early spring; that can be applied monthly through late July if desired. We recommend a granular (not liquid) fertilizer formulated for woody plants, like a rose fertilizer.

9. Should I prune my new plants?

It depends on the variety, as well as your intent for the plant. Generally speaking, though, newer plants need little if any pruning, and any pruning you do should be properly timed according to its bloom time. As with all pruning, when in doubt, don’t prune – you can contact us for some advice, or reach out to your local cooperative extension for expert advice for your area.

Written by
Stacey

Stacey

I'm a lifelong gardener who loves sharing my passion for plants in writing, videos, and on air. My very sunny, very sandy garden is in USDA zone 6, and I grow vegetables, herbs, native plants, and almost anything that attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. My biggest gardening challenge is deer - though this means I can't grow many of my favorite plants, it has been an interesting learning experience, which ultimately is the best part of gardening!

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11 Responses

  1. Hello-
    I just purchased a non-invasive Butterfly bush, a “Proven Winner” brand. I live in zone 6B, it is still warm/hot here, it will begin to cool down next month, at some point, we have has a lot of rain! Can I plant my Butterfly bush now? If not, it it OK to leave it in the pot I bought it in? It still has purple blooms, and I have it on my deck, where I plan to leave it, unless I need to bring it inside for the fall/winter.
    Thank you!
    Ruth

    1. It would be best to get it in the ground sooner than later. Just be sure that you plant it slightly “high” – with its base a bit above, rather than even with, the soil surface. This will help water drain away from it over winter. And don’t do any pruning or cutting back until you see new growth beginning to emerge next spring.

  2. Stacey, Love the info … you provide 🙏🏻
    Though I feel your pain, I actually didn’t want to go outside in the morning, due to the deer.. and they’re ravenous appetite… I rescue plants at Lowe’s, and bring them back to life, to get eaten by deer.. they are even eating things that are deer resistant, possibly, due to lack of rain and a thirst issue.. I have tried so many different remedies and returned many…, Finally as of today, can say my garden looks beautiful, and untouched,
    Deer Scram is what did the trick for me at least for now🤞🏻
    I hope this helps!

    1. Thanks so much, Michele – that’s great to hear! I know there are so many options out there for deer repellent, so it’s good to have first-hand recommendations.

  3. I would like to plant a lilac bush, I’m in zone 6a here in Ohio. I lost a new one and don’t know what happened to it but I’d like to get a replacement in the ground as soon as I can. Should I wait until spring or plant a new lilac now?

    1. Lilacs are perfectly hardy in Ohio, so winter temperatures won’t be an issue for them, but they are very sensitive to wet soil. So if your soil does not drain well, especially in spring, I’d suggest waiting til spring to plant one so that it has more time to create roots. If your soil is well-drained, you probably have until the middle of October to safely plant a lilac.

  4. I’m in Zone 5b in Ontario, and have a healthy Rose of Sharon that is approaching 7 feet tall. Last year my blue/purple bush sported 3 pink blossoms. This year there were more than 10. Is this a situation similar to a variegated bush gradually losing its white accents if those branches are not cut off? If that is the case should I put ribbons on the affected branches and remove next spring, or now?
    Love the blue flowers, thanks,
    Muriel

    1. It sounds like your plant has put out what’s known as a sport – a branch or two that’s genetically different than the rest of the plant. This isn’t entirely uncommon, and to be on the safe side, you should remove the entire branch or branches. If you know which ones they were, it’s fine to do that now. If you aren’t sure, then just wait until next summer when those pink flowers appear, trace the branch(es) that they are on back to the main stem, and cut them as close to the main stem as possible.

  5. Is it true that you should not cut back Easter flowers or Iris. I’ve always heard that they won’t bloom next year if you do this 🥺

    1. Easter lilies can be cut back once their stem has turned brown and gone completely dormant – that indicates that the energy in the leaves has been stored by the bulb so it can create a flower bud for next year. As for iris, it does depend on which type of iris you have. Siberian iris should not generally be cut back; bearded iris are usually cut back to 6-8″ in fall.

  6. Thank you!! I did plant it last month, I think it was the second week of September, when it was very warm to hot most of the time, but not super hot like in the middle of summer. It has done well so far, it still has flowers, and looks healthy. It has been pretty cool here since the remnants of hurricane Ian came through, but will warm up again before true fall sets in. I appreciate your answering my question.

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