The most popular seasons for planting apple trees are spring and fall. Experienced growers often opt for fall planting because it holds several advantages over spring planting.
Apple trees can be planted in the fall except unless your region experiences severe winters. They should be planted while dormant. Northern regions that suffer extreme cold temperatures should wait until spring for planting.
We will thoroughly address this and more in the following sections:
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- Advantages of Fall Planting
- Conditions for Fall Planting
- When Spring Planting is Best
- Bare Root or Potted
Let’s begin with why fall planting is beneficial in the first place.
The Advantages of Fall Planting Apple Trees
Fall planting provides considerable benefits for apple trees and their growers.
Trees transpire, or lose water, more quickly during the summer season because it is hot. Freshly-transplanted trees will transpire more than established trees because they are growing new roots, which means they will require more water to keep them from becoming drought stressed.
When apple trees enter dormancy during the colder months, they shed their leaves. Without leaves to support nor the stress of hot summer days, transpiration is much slower.
This means you save on water!
Promotes Root Growth
Fall planting supports root development because the roots get a head start adapting to their new environment before the growing season.
As trees prepare for winter, branches go dormant before the roots. Even though your apple tree looks like a stick in the ground, important growth is happening beneath the surface in the moist (not frozen) soil.
Spring planting puts several demands on an apple tree at one time.
Not only does a newly planted apple tree need to grow its root system, but the longer days and warmer temperatures call for leaves and flowers.
Foliage and flower/fruit production require a robust root system to support the new growth. Fall planting gives the root zone a head start so the tree can focus on topgrowth in the spring.
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The Prerequisites for Fall Planting Apple Trees
Ideal planting conditions for apple trees are highly dependent on location.
Planting apple trees in the fall is easy if you are in hardiness zones 7 or warmer where the winters are mild and moist.
Check out the plant hardiness map to determine which zone applies to you.
It’s possible to plant apple trees in the colder climates of zones 5 and 6 during the fall, but some growers warn against the winter injury of young trees.
However, this risk can be mitigated.
For example, the University of Minnesota recommends covering roots of newly planted trees with a thick layer of mulch and keeping them well-watered in the fall because moist soil stays warmer than dry soil. Also, wrapping young tree trunks in reflective material prevents sunscald.
Plant During Dormancy
You should plant your apple trees when they are dormant.
As summer wanes, fruit tree leaves sense the decrease in daylight hours and begin the first stage of winter acclimation while the temperatures are still warm. Trees withdraw nutrients from their leaves and increase their tolerance to the cold as temperatures gradually drop.
When trees reach the first frost (subfreezing temperatures), they experience a sudden increase in cold weather tolerance. According to PennState, their hardiness improves by up to 10°F the day after the first frost (source).
Arborist Pete Smith from the Arbor Day Foundation claims the optimal time to plant apple trees is after the first frost when they’re hardier but before the ground freezes.
Pete says, “If you’re able to stick a spade in the ground, you’re still able to plant your trees” (source).
Warmer zones do not have the same definitive deadline since the ground does not freeze.
See our recommendations for the best fruit trees to grow in Zone 7b.
When to Plant Apple Trees in the Spring
You should avoid fall planting apple trees in the northern and central U.S. As a rule, those areas are better for spring planting.
The University of Maine asserts that New England is too cold to plant apple trees in the fall. They recommend planting in early spring when the ground thaws.
Michigan State University also encourages spring planting due to Michigan’s severely cold temperatures. They point out that many nurseries cannot sell and ship the trees in time because the ground freezes early.
If the ground freezes before you receive your apple trees, do not plant them during the fall.
Even though northern states battle freezing temperatures, Michigan State University did report the successful planting of two Tall Spindle apple trees in the fall.
They produced fruit during their first growing season!
It’s not impossible to successfully plant apple trees in hardiness zone 5 in the fall, but it’s riskier and requires thoughtful planning.
If you want to risk it, watch the weather forecast closely. Keep your eyes on those subfreezing temperatures and choose a nursery that can deliver in time.
Bare Root or Container-Grown for Fall Planting?
Bare root apple trees don’t have soil around their roots and are only sold during dormancy. They must be unearthed, sold, and planted within a short window of time to prevent the roots from drying out.
Bare root trees require more planning, but they are cheaper to ship than potted trees and, therefore, less expensive to purchase. Also, a wider array of varieties are available in bare root form.
Container-grown apple trees are available all year and can be planted any time of year, though they still benefit from fall planting.
The flexibility of potted plants helps if you live in a cold climate and need to plant as early as October.
Spring planting might feel more inspiring because it’s the beginning of the growing season and that’s a popular time to plant. But, if you plan ahead and are fearless in the face of winter, fall planting gives apple trees a significant head start.
Of course, if you live in Maine where winter is insanely brutal and the ground freezes early, wait for spring.
Related Reading: Do Apple Trees Need Full Sun?