The Best Time to Plant Trees in Virginia

tree nursery worker

Whether you are looking to create more shade, better define your property line, or simply add a bit more diversity to your outdoor living space, planting trees can be a simple solution. Planting trees is a great way to not only enhance the landscaping of your yard but also to help improve the environment. Trees add oxygen to the air, improve the quality of air, help to preserve soil and curb erosion and support wildlife.

While planting trees is not difficult, there are several factors to consider to ensure the successful growth of healthy trees for years to come. Before planting, you must find the ideal spot for planting, proper depth and width of the hole, and adequate water supply. However, equally as important is the time of year you choose to plant. In Virginia, this generally means the fall or spring.

Why plant trees in the fall or spring?

Because Virginia winters can be cold and sometimes dry, planting trees at this time is not possible. When the ground freezes, it is much more difficult to dig a hole properly and the soil is not prepared to nourish the root system of the tree.

While hot Virginia summers are ripe with flowering plants and fruits, the warm temperatures and potentially dry soil can cause unnecessary stress when your new tree is most delicate. Trees need time for a healthy root system to develop and summer can be a bit too hot and require too much watering.

During the spring, as the ground thaws, most plants and trees begin to establish healthy roots allowing them to grow and prosper as the weather continues to warm. Similarly, the fall – when soil temperatures are still warm, and the climate becomes more moderate – is an excellent time to plant new trees.

Taking care to choose the best time to plant your tree is all about creating a foundation for continued growth for years to come. Without a healthy root system, your tree will fail to thrive even if other adequate conditions are present. A strong root system allows trees to store “reserves” of water and nutrients to survive droughts, soaring summer temperatures, and cold winter months.

Therefore, it is best to plant new trees in either fall or spring. Deciding which is better depends on several factors like the kind of tree you are planting, and requirements of those trees. So visit your favorite place to buy trees then and plan a day to put it in the ground.

Planting in the spring

Spring is a traditional planting season. Many people prefer planting in the spring since it is followed by warm and sunny summer months when many flowers, plants and trees are in their prime blooming season. Spring stimulates growth and therefore can be a great time for new roots to become established sooner.  Planting in the spring also gives leaves a chance to develop all summer long.

However, because your new tree will be working to strengthen its roots while also growing new leaves, it can be rather taxing on new trees. Your tree may experience tremendous growth during this period, but it may not be developing the root strength required to survive through fall and winter.

Planting during the spring can also leave your new tree vulnerable to summer heat waves or thunderstorms.  Just as people need to take care to hydrate more frequently during the hot summer months, trees also need to be monitored and adequately watered throughout the hottest season of the year.  

Planting in the fall

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Many gardening and landscaping experts recommend planting new trees in the fall to avoid some of these potential problems. In Virginia, the fall planting season begins around mid-September and can extend until the first freeze.

The cooler air temperatures in the fall, combined with warm ground temperatures, is perfect for nourishing new roots. These temperature conditions mean the new tree can start to establish its roots without also trying to grow new leaves. However, if you wait too long into the fall, there is a chance the ground will freeze before the roots have had a chance to really develop, so early fall is best.

Spring is a popular time for gardeners. Homeowners are generally anxious to get outside after a long winter which means nurseries are generally very well stocked. While this can mean a larger variety of trees from which to choose, you might be more apt to find deals in the fall. If you wait until fall, nurseries have inventory they need to sell before winter and may run more aggressive sales.

Finding the perfect window to plant trees can feel tricky. If you’re looking for a more specific window, for most Virginians, planting in September is ideal. Days are still quite warm while evenings are cool.

Consider the type of tree you are planting

The United States is divided into several hardiness zones meant to serve as a guide to determine which plants are most likely to thrive in your area’s unique climate. Virginia belongs in zones 5-8. Most trees are labeled with guides that outline the best time to plant according to which zone they will be planted in. Consult these guides or a nursery expert to help decide which plants will do best in Virginia’s hardiness zones.

When you choose to plant also depends on the kind of tree you are planting. Bare root trees, (so named because the roots are shipped without the cover of soil) generally have a better chance of survival if planted in the spring.  Winter can cause damage to the vulnerable roots of these types of trees.

Container trees that are grown in pots or wrapped in burlap are hearty enough to be planted in fall. Similarly, deciduous trees that lose their leaves in fall and go dormant in winter, should ideally be planted during the fall months. The roots will grow dormant and sustain winter then come back to life in spring. Evergreens also do better in fall as they are sensitive to extreme heat.  

Conifers and transplants can be planted during moderate fall or spring temperatures. Conifers still lose moisture in winter, even though they are dormant. As long as you can keep getting water to the roots, they’ll survive winter and grow beautifully in spring.

The care and preparation you devote to planting trees is just as important (if not more important) that the actual tree you purchase. Take the time to understand the ideal conditions required of the trees you’d like to plant. Choose a spot in your yard that provides enough sun, shade, drainage and access to water, as well as space to grow. Once you have done the research to understand the specific needs and conditions required to help your tree grow, focus on the best time of year to plant. For Virginia homeowners, this means spring or fall.

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