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5 Reasons Why We’ll Be Busy Planting in Winter

You can probably guess what many of our winter activities are here on the farm: poring over seed catalogs and placing orders, starting the first few batches of seedlings in the greenhouse, and tackling time-consuming projects -- like preparing irrigation systems and organizing the tool sheds -- that get pushed to the side when the spring/summer/fall frenzy of activity starts.

What you might be surprised to hear is that winter is when we do most of our plantings of large trees and shrubs. Over the last several winters, we've focused on getting our foundational landscape plantings installed – perennial shrubs and trees chosen as sources of flowers or greenery for our floral designs. If the ground was dry and unfrozen enough to get a shovel in, we were digging holes and planting!

While fall is by far the best time to plant large perennials, winter is actually my second-favorite time to get them in the ground. Here are 5 reasons why fall/winter is a good time to put in trees and shrubs:

A man stands in a grassy area with trees, a barn, and an ATV behind him.
Mike helping me plant bare-root lilacs in late November.

1) Fall /winter planting gives the root systems of shrubs and trees a head start Even when air temperatures are frigid, soil temperatures (below the first few inches, in most climates) stay relatively constant. This means that the roots can be growing even if the rest of the plant is just a bunch of dead-looking (dormant) sticks. As a result, by the time the trees and shrubs start leafing out in spring, they’ve got a stronger root system to draw upon than if they'd been planted in the spring. Since a plant can only grow as fast as its roots can take up nutrients, a better root system means a faster-growing, healthier plant, come spring.

2) The plants are better able to withstand windy weather. When you first plant a tree or shrub, it generally has an artificially small root system, either because it’s been growing in a pot, or, with balled-and-burlapped trees, because a lot of the roots get left behind when the tree is harvested by the nursery (otherwise the root ball would be unmanageably large). A spring-planted tree might look prettier when it goes in the ground, but because it has a disproportionate amount of leaf canopy compared to its root ball, the tree’s undersized root system is less able to keep the sapling stable when the wind hits those leaves. Fall (or even winter) planting – especially in areas like ours, where the spring winds can be brutal – gives newly planted trees a better chance of weathering the inevitable spring storms.

Two men with shovels on their shoulders stand in front of a greenhouse.  A row of boxwood shrubs are in front of them
Winter sale prices made it more affordable to buy mature boxwood shrubs to plant in front of the greenhouse.

3) You can get great prices! In addition to benefitting from end-of-season markdowns in the fall, post-Christmas sales at the big box stores can be a great time to snap up evergreens at amazing prices. Just be sure to read the labels to ensure the plants will thrive in your area, since some of those holiday evergreens may be ill-suited to your particular climate. And if you’re a flower farmer, I highly recommend finding a local wholesale nursery – the ones that sell to local landscapers – to purchase from. Unlike retail nurseries, they often have trees and shrubs in stock all year long.

4) Generally, Mother Nature will take care of the watering for you. Young trees and shrubs need regular moisture, because they haven’t yet developed long, deep tap roots. Keeping them hydrated in the warmer months can be a major challenge. As hauling hoses is one of my least favorite activities, I’m happy to avoid this chore.

Snow-covered trees along a fenceline.
Winter rains and snow take care of the watering for you.

5) It’s more comfortable for you. In addition to the fact that we actually have available time in the winter months, we also don’t have to suffer in the heat. Since planting a tree or shrub is hard work, staying warm in the frigid temps isn’t hard. But keeping cool in the warm months definitely is!

Of course, there are downsides to fall and winter planting. First, the roots of any plants that are waiting to go in the ground have to be protected. In our area, the damage comes not so much from the cold temperatures themselves, but from the regular freezing and thawing that occurs due to our constantly fluctuating winter temperatures. When we can’t get plants in the ground right away, we keep their roots insulated by packing lots of straw and/or mulch around them.

It can also be hard to find planting windows – those times when the ground isn’t too wet or frozen. Finally, unless you’re working with evergreens, planting what looks like a bunch of sticks requires an element of faith, since you won’t know how the plant is doing until it starts to leaf out in spring. And your efforts don’t provide much in the way of instant gratification, the way planting in spring or summer does.

Still, all things considered, fall and winter are – by far – my favorite time to plant large trees and shrubs. If you live in a climate that isn't already snowbound, I hope you are inspired to try it, too!

I planted a grove of native trees -- including these sugar maples -- in December, 2014.

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