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Best to plant now, not wait 'til spring
Why autumn really is the best time to plant

Date published: 11/2/2012

IN KEEPING with my theme of dispelling garden myths, let's look at the misconception that spring is the best time to plant.

No surprise that spring is the most popular time for homeowners and gardeners to plant trees and shrubs in their yards. After a long, dreary winter, it seems natural for gardeners to want to work outside in their yards and gardens. Many can't wait for spring to arrive and begin their season-long love affair with nature.

I know I start to get eager in mid-February to begin planting. If you add to that natural desire to get out into the yard the fact that garden centers and the large box stores start building their plant inventory in March, it's easy to see how the myth that spring is the best time to plant got started.

Before I go any further, let me explain that early to mid-spring is not necessarily a bad time to plant. It's just not the best time--especially late spring and summer.

As leaves expand in the spring, they begin to photosynthesize. To accomplish this, plants have to transpire water through their stomata (tiny openings on the underside of leaves). This can put undue stress on a plant if it does not receive enough water from rain or irrigation.

Most of the energy reserves in the plant are used for growth in the canopy of the plant. During this time, little root growth is taking place, and the plant is slower to establish itself. Another reason that spring is not the best time to plant is that many plants bloom during this time of year. Plants need plenty of energy to flower and set seed. Once again, root growth is a lower priority.

Despite this reality, plants in full bloom are the first sought out in garden centers by homeowners and weekend gardeners. I have to confess that I have succumbed to this indulgence as well, but I always make sure my newly purchased plants are well maintained to give them a better chance for survival.

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Guy J. Mussey is an agent in Virginia Cooperative Extension's Stafford County office, specializing in environmental horticulture. Phone 540/658-8000; fax 540/658-8006; email gmussey@vt.edu.