JoAnne Skelly: Plant now to improve spring growth

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If you, too, have been thinking of planting new trees or shrubs, plant now instead of planting in the spring when the soil is cold. Trees do best next year when planted this fall when the soil is warm. Even as the temperatures drop, the soil stays warm until hard freezes last for weeks.

All summer long, soils have been collecting heat and it’s only beginning to dissipate. However, in the springtime, it takes a long time for soils to warm up after the long winter’s cold. Cold soils shock roots, which then causes a lengthy delay in growth, first of the roots, then of the leaves and, finally, of the rest of the plant. Planting now gives roots a developmental head start next spring, no matter if the top of the plant currently is dormant. When the air temperatures do start warming next year, those well-developed roots will be ready to absorb moisture and nutrients and will send “Let’s grow now” signals to the above-ground portion of the tree or shrub.

Research has shown that fall-planted trees develop almost twice as much leaf mass two to three times as quickly in the spring than spring-planted ones. All that leafy growth will absorb sunlight and transform it into the nutrients a plant needs to be strong and healthy. Besides, who doesn’t want fast growth on their trees in the spring? Wouldn’t you rather see a tree with a full, strong canopy than a spindly plant struggling to survive?

A challenge to planting now is keeping new plants moist until and between rain or snow events. There often isn’t enough water when it does rain or snow to soak the ground to the depth of the root ball, so plan on paying attention to soil moisture for your newly planted trees or shrubs all winter.

To properly plant, dig a hole four to five times wider than the size of the root ball and only as deep as the root ball. When planted, the top of the root ball should be level with the ground, not above or below grade. Before you set the plant into the hole, loosen the sides of the hole rather than leaving them slick from the shovel. Place the plant in the hole; backfill with native soil; tamp down the soil firmly and water well.

For detailed planting and aftercare instructions, go to

JoAnne Skelly is associate professor and Extension educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


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