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Why Nature Wants to Plant Trees + Shrubs in Fall

Updated: Mar 30

We love a good spring planting as much as anyone else! But after several years of observing + interacting with native plant installations in various landscapes, we are convinced that Nature is actually guiding us to slow down and wait to introduce new native trees and shrubs in fall. 


If this EarthCare guidance is putting a damper on your spring planting dreams, walk through a reframe with us and gain perspective on why this timeline is the best way to go.

 

Why Native Plants?


First, a quick refresh on why we choose plants that are native to our bioregion (explore this amazing new navigator tool later!).  


Planting native trees and shrubs is ideal for wildlife, insects, and pollinators, providing the right kinds of food and shelter they depend on. Native plants are naturally adapted to their bioregion's climate and soil conditions, making them low-maintenance and resilient. While the ecological gardening practice of “right plant, right place” applies on a micro level to planning specific garden plots, we know the same is true on an ecosystem level when practicing EarthCare and planting with intention. 


We want to increase biodiversity and reduce external inputs as much as possible by choosing native plants that support wildlife, provide necessary ecosystem services, and have a natural leg up to thrive in their native landscape. 


Note: We affectionately call trees and shrubs “woodies,” because of their woody structure that stays alive, unlike the stems and stalks of perennial plants that die back entirely each year. 





Why is Fall Planting Ideal for Woodies?


Consider what Nature is doing in the fall season. Perennial plants and deciduous trees are slowly going dormant, transferring their energy into their roots to sustain through winter. They’re also going to seed, and then layers of leaves fall to cover the seeds as they nestle into the soil. These leaves and extra fallen debris also creates great insulation and slow-drip nutrient release into the soil for roots. This natural incubation period is a perfect model for how we want to plant. 


So, if we’re mirroring nature in our soil prep and care for new plantings, why not take another step and follow her lead on the timing? Let’s dig deeper to understand what is happening for plants through the seasons, and what an EarthCare planting timeline looks like. 


Why not Spring for Trees and Shrubs? 


Spring is a time of re-emergence after the dormancy of winter. A plant’s energy is rising up from the roots to grow new shoots and leaves, beginning to photosynthesize, flower and fruit. Plants depend on strong root systems to support this energetic part of their lifecycle. Transplanting (even from a container to the ground) during this time of their growth cycle is especially shocking to their system, and can be detrimental. 


We have seen too many woodies die for reasons that are common to planting in spring, including:


  • Rushing the planting without thoroughly assessing where/how to plant.

  • Planting into high-nitrogen soil that was not well prepped, rushing or skipping sheet mulching, or planting into a newly prepped space too soon, for example. 

  • Subjecting to heat stress, which is easy to do when temps are rising into summer.

  • Dehydrating roots, either through inadequate watering, or fighting against evaporation on hotter days. 

  • Asking the plant to do too many things at once: establish new roots, adapt to a new environment, and send out shoots, buds, leaves, flowers and seeds. 


When we shift to fall planting, many of these challenges resolve themselves naturally. 


  • When planting between mid-September to late November, rainfall increases (in our bioregion), and the weather is trending cooler, with progressively less daylight hours. These conditions are much more gentle on new roots, as long as you get them in the ground before it starts to freeze. 

  • It’s easier for soil to retain moisture without the hot sun drying it out. The same goes for watering, as less is lost to evaporation in cooler weather. That means you won’t have to work as hard to keep your new plants hydrated in fall, and you’ll conserve water, which is always a win. 

  • The biggest benefit of fall planting, however, is that the plant’s roots are not in competition for energy and resources with its own natural desire to grow (a springtime process) by sending out buds, flowers and seeds, at the same time. 


Most plants will prioritize reproduction over self-preservation. They have a broad picture of life, and innate dedication to the survival of their species over their individuality. If they are threatened by a high demand of energy to survive, they will prioritize sending out shoots, buds, flowers and seeds to reproduce, and then they will let go of life, and die themselves. We can prevent this stressful situation from occurring by only asking the plant to focus on their roots first (in fall), while the rest of the plant is going dormant. They can get well established in the new place (your place) and be ready for powerful growth by spring. 


This is also the best method to protect your investment. Woodies aren’t cheap! 



Asking your young tree or shrub to support root and crown growth at the same time is overwhelming to the system. Waiting to plant in fall is one simple way you can reduce stress for young plants, allowing them to dedicate their energy to developing a strong root system before they get to the business of expanding their growth above ground. 


Can you relate? We could all use a little bit of time to get grounded before we need to burst forth into the wild world outside, so let’s do the same for our plants. That’s EarthCare, friends. 





Ideal EarthCare Timeline 


Now that we understand why fall is the best choice for woody native planting, what does an ideal timeline look like from an EarthCare perspective? 


First, keep in mind that we’re looking at years, not just single seasons. This is especially relevant for trees and shrubs with their long lifecycle. Invest the time and energy to get them well established now, and they will provide for you and the ecosystem for many years to come. 


Year 1: Observe + Interact 


The first year of getting to know a landscape involves spending time with the land and building a relationship with Nature in Your Place. This is the foundation of EarthCare that allows us to then take ethical, ecological action we can feel good about and know is aligned with Nature. We do this in many ways, focusing on the first principle of permaculture: Observe and Interact. 


To support this early stage (and lifelong commitment) of your EarthCare journey, we found three core routines of nature connection that directly relate to becoming a better land steward. 

  • Sit Spot Practice - like a daily meditation, just listening to the world around you.

  • Nature Journal - taking notes and writing about your experience with Nature. 

  • Land Walking - talking walks in nature, especially around your Place. 


We recommend doing at least one Land Walk per season to experience the variations in weather and animal life present in your Place. We encourage everyone to establish a daily Sit Spot practice, and to create a Nature Journal to record your observations. These are all integral to the planning process, as we need to discover what’s present before planting. 


Want to practice the 3 Core Routines of EarthCare? Get free support here.


The LadyBugs offer support for this stage as well, through our Virtual Site Visit (remote), Land Walk Consultation (local) and Mindful CleanUp service (local + limited availability).  You can find these on our website, on the Services page. 


In year one, we also think it’s fine to sheet mulch over grass monocrops, or in places where there are no thriving natives or valuable plantings yet. This gets you a good jump start on that soil regeneration process, especially if you do plan to plant trees or shrubs in the future. 


DIYing your landscape? Get the Mindful CleanUp Guide here, which includes a ton of relevant checklists, processes and timelines for interactive EarthCare at this early stage, including a step-by-step Sheet Mulching Tutorial. 


Year Two: Design, Plan, Prep + Finally…Plant!


Here’s our recommended seasonal timeline (after a year of observation) in much more detail. 


Winter: Emergent Strategic Planning & Ecological Patch Design


In the second year, it’s time to develop a strategic plan and design tailored to your goals and the land’s unique conditions. But in EarthCare, we don’t often do those big beautiful master designs that spell out where each and every tree, shrub and plant will be in 30 years. It’s a living ecosystem, not paint by numbers. And who has the money to implement all that at once? 


Instead, we like to design and plan along the way, adapting and adjusting the details as new information emerges, which is why the first year is so important. Learning how to deeply observe and mindfully interact with the land you steward is a foundational practice that will serve you well, and save you loads of money and time. 


Note: There is no shame here if you’re someone who needs to have a Master Plan and a detailed set of visuals to move forward, and we’ve partnered with some pretty amazing designers to deliver this, if that’s on your list of must-haves. 


If you’ve already done a lot of planning over the first year, and feel confident that your plans are truly aligned with nature’s needs and desires in your Place, this is a great time for site prepping, clearing unwanted plants, cutting vines and sheet mulching. This work keeps ya warm too! 


Spring: Prep Projects, Plant Perennials, but no Tree Planting! 


Spring is the perfect time to observe the emergence of plants, especially if you’re in a new home or tending a new landscape, so don’t rush to clear land or prep too much, if that’s the case! 


If you’ve already gone through a full year of deep observation, it’s another great time for site prep projects such as sheet mulching, enriching soil with compost, and meadow seeding (although that’s best in fall too). Take the first steps of any larger-scale transformations if changing ground level is part of your plan. 


While we recommend avoiding planting trees and shrubs during spring, it’s the perfect time to plant perennials and seed annuals, and watch them grow all summer into fall. These plants have a one year cycle, and then die fully (annuls) or die back for winter to hibernate (perennials), so they don’t have the same energy requirements as woodies.


Pro Tip: If you ordered trees and they didn’t come last fall, you can still plant them in early March when the ground is cold, but you must be extra mindful and tender with their care. 


Summer: Prep Projects, No Planting!


While some site preparation projects can continue in the summer heat, we avoid planting at all costs. New plantings require a lot of water, and we’d rather lean into nature’s provisions in another season for that vital and precious resource. Plus, sometimes water is put on restriction due to drought, and then the plant investment is a sure loss. We recognize that farmers and gardeners often plant another round of seeds in summer for a late fall or winter harvest, but that is not the context we are discussing here. We are referring to native plantings. Please only plant new natives in spring (perennials) or fall (woodies and perennials) for best survival rates. 


Summer is an ideal time to continue planning, prepping, weeding, connecting, redesigning based on new observations, and simply enjoying your Place in Nature. Plenty to do! 


Fall: Tree & Shrub Planting


Finally! Fall is the prime time for planting trees and shrubs of any kind.


With the cooler temperatures and increased rainfall, new plants can establish their root systems without experiencing the stress of active growth above ground. The ideal planting window in our bioregion (MidAtlantic, North American Forest) is between mid-September to mid-November, but really you should go by how it feels outside, not calendar dates, because this is shifting. 


The ideal planting vibes for our native woodies is when you can feel that fall shift: after summer heat begins to lift consistently, it’s cooler at night, and before the ground freezes. This time of year we start to feel drawn inward, while still feeling eager to connect with friends and family around cultural events and campfires. 


Our bodies know winter is coming, but there’s still ease when working with the soil. Woodies love this time of year, because they too get to release their drive to produce more, and start to crawl inward, saving energy in their roots for winter. Lean into that feeling and your plantings will thrive for many years to come, thankful that you listened to your body, which is Nature too. 





Our Conclusion? Follow Nature’s Lead


Introducing native trees and shrubs in harmonious timing with their natural cycles is aligned with the EarthCare philosophy. By coordinating new plantings with fall's conditions, you work in partnership with nature herself rather than against her. The result is thriving habitats and ecosystems, grounded with structure plants (our native trees and shrubs, or “woodies”) that are healthier, hardier, and better adjusted to their local environment from the very start.


So while spring may be prime time for annual seeds and perennial plants, fall is the best season for installing woody trees and shrubs from an EarthCare perspective. 


Adopting a commitment to “Right plant, right place, right time” is the best way to ensure a meaningful return on your investment where it matters - a healthy habitat that supports pollinators, wildlife, and your best life, too.


Continue the Journey


Ready to plant this season? Read our blog about Ecological Planting Techniques + Our Trusted Native Plant Growers.


Digging into more soil prep before you plant? Learn more about Worms, Compost + Building Soil.


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