Why Autumn is the Best Time for Planting Shrubs

The cooler temperatures of fall are an invitation to leave the blast-chiller air conditioning behind, and step outside and enjoy that certain crispness that characterizes autumn.

And while you’re out there, why not install a few shrubs? As with trees, autumn is generally considered to be the best time to plant ornamental bushes.

A hedge made of firethorn (pyracantha) with orange berries in the fall.

Let’s learn why you should plant in autumn, what “fall” really means, and how to plant woody plants!

Why Fall is Best

For one thing, as we mentioned above, the weather is cooler but still tolerable in fall. Humidity is often lower, too. Do you really want to be sweating buckets while digging holes in August? Me, either. So, to start with, fall is a comfortable and enjoyable time to be outdoors.

A Japanese garden with leaves turning red and yellow and green grasses.

More importantly, however, planting shrubs in the fall allows the plants to establish an extensive root system before winter sets in. In fall, the plants aren’t programmed to produce shoots or leaves, but in a newly planted situation, they’ll spend their energy developing roots, so come springtime, they’ll be able to draw plenty of resources for above-ground development.

Plants that get a head start on root development in the fall will be in better position for summer’s climatic challenges.

Yellow cinquefoil bush flowers in bloom. Close up.

Another good reason to plant in the fall is that garden centers often put plant material on sale this time of year.  And who appreciates a bargain more than gardeners?

A no-duh caveat: If you’re hankering to plant a shrub that’s winter-tender in your area, then it’s best to wait until spring.

It’s September, But Still Really Hot

It’s important to take into consideration just when your “fall” is. Temperatures drop and humidity falls at different times in different parts of the country, of course. Just because the kids are back in school doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good time to get out the shovel.

The purple berries of the American Beautyberry shrub (Callicarpa americana)on an autumn day with fall colored foliage in a diffused backgrround.

When temperatures have dropped and the forecast says they will remain lower for the foreseeable future, you should be safe planting shrubs.  As long as soil temperatures are in the 50°Fs or even the 40°Fs, you should be ok.

How to Plant Shrubs

If temperatures have lowered to a point where you can dig a hole without risking a coronary, it’s time to get started!

You’ve found some nice shrubs on sale, and they appear to be in good health — not too charred from summer’s heat.

Dig a hole that is about a foot wider than the root ball, and about as deep as the root ball.

Two pairs of human arms and hands move a small rose bush into a hole for a fall transplant.

Cut any circling roots. Some experts say to cut an X into the bottom of the root ball to encourage new rooting.

Place the plant in the hole and backfill with dirt you removed from the hole, but do not pack the soil. You can press lightly to eliminate air pockets, but don’t compact the soil.

Don’t fertilize at this time. It may be appropriate to do so in the spring, but don’t do it in the fall.

Water well, add more soil if necessary, and then add a thick layer of mulch.

Labor Now, Rewards Later

Fall shrub planting all but ensures no trips to the ER for heatstroke, and it all but ensures strong, healthy plants come springtime.

A large pink oleander shrub in bloom on a sunny day. A backyard setting next to a stone tiled patio.

Plant in autumn and you’ll have well-established plants in spring that will be ready to put on plenty of New growth.

Do you plan ahead and plant in fall? Tell us your experiences in the comments area, below.

And if you’re pondering which plants to purchase, consider these:

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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