Over the years there has been much discussion as to whether it is best to plant fruit trees in the autumn (late November/December) or spring. So much so in fact that the novice and often more experienced gardener becomes totally confused! I have always been an advocate of planting in the autumn and I preach this message wherever I go; most certainly I very rarely plant anything in my garden in the spring unless there are real extenuating circumstances. But why plant in the autumn when there is still so much to do in the garden?
There are many advantages of autumn planting so let’s consider them. As far as I am concerned the most important factor is that the soil is still warm in autumn – particularly in years such as 2013 when we have had a period of blisteringly hot weather. A warm soil helps roots bed in and develop quickly and if this can happen before the cold winter months trees will be able to get off to a good start the following year which is imperative for good development. Trees planted in the spring will need plenty of attention – watering (!) – if conditions are dry and I can well imagine this year has seen plenty of trees suffer or perish for want of water. A good growing root system in spring will also ensure that trees will quickly establish a strong anchorage in the ground which will eliminate the need for long term support.
And talking of weather it is much easier – and often better – planting in the autumn when the ground is still relatively dry. For a start it is much less messy and damaging digging planting holes when the soil is fairly friable and the holes are unlikely to fill with water which is more likely when groundwater levels are high in the spring. One no no about planting is that you should never plant into water as roots will quickly rot if immersed in water for too long. And to be absolutely honest I would much rather plant anything on a warm autumn day rather than a cold early spring day!
Another great advantage to autumn planting is that the varieties that you want are much more likely to be available. If you consider that all nurseries want to get their trees out of the ground as soon as possible after leaf fall (usually late November/December) and when ground conditions are still good you will realise that they will be promoting early sales. This means that a large number will quickly go and unless you have reserved yours earlier it is highly likely that you will have more limited choice if you leave it late. Additionally, quite a few garden centres get all of their bare rooted stock in late autumn and then bed them in roughly. Quite often this ends up with trees in spring with much of their root system uncovered after disturbance by weather and people and this will lead to a poor tree as roots will be damaged. I would much rather have fruit trees delivered to me that were still in the ground immediately before packing and despatch.
Of course there is an argument – especially by garden centres and some suppliers – that container grown trees are much better as they can be planted all year round and this, therefore, negates all of my comments. However, this is a flawed proposition as not only are container grown trees often twice the cost of bare rooted trees but also often have a poor and sometimes damaged root system as they have been in their containers too long. On several occasions I have seen container grown fruit trees in garden centres a couple of years after delivery. These trees will never develop well so it is essential to stay clear of them. Additionally when initially planted, container grown trees will need good support for quite some time whilst their roots work themselves into the soil and achieve good anchorage. Most specialist nurseries will have a large selection of varieties growing in the ground for bare root sale but only a limited selection of varieties available in containers.
One final point to consider is an environmental issue. If fruit trees stay in the ground from budding or grafting and then lifted as required they have not required additional watering, fertilisers, a planting medium and a pot if they are to be containerised. Just think what resources you will be saving if you buy a fair quantity of them.
Autumn planting, therefore, clearly makes real sense and I urge you to follow this rule. However as with everything in life there are always exceptions to a rule. A typical exception is that you simply haven’t been able to get your ground prepared in time for autumn planting and this has happened to me on more than one occasion. All you can do in this circumstance is to ensure that such trees are well looked after the following year.
19th September 2013
Gerry is an experienced amateur fruit grower who is Chairman of the RHS Fruit Group, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit, Vegetable and Herb Committee and also their Fruit Trials Panel. Gerry judges fruit nationally for the Royal Horticultural Society and is also a qualified National Vegetable Society judge.