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Best to plant now, not wait 'til spring

November 2, 2012 12:10 am

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.

So why is fall the best time to plant? For one thing, the biological processes of the plant are slowing down. Temperate-zone plants respond to day length and temperature changes by beginning to enter dormancy. This reduces or eliminates many of the stress factors that were present in the spring and summer.

As the top of the plant retreats into dormancy, the roots will continue to grow. They will use stored food reserves produced by the plant during the growing season. As a matter of fact, roots will continue to grow until soil temperature reaches about 55 degrees. In the Fredericksburg area, that may not happen until mid- to late January. During warm winters, like last winter, the soil temperature may never drop below 55 degrees, giving the plant time to get well established before the spring growing season returns.

Fall is also a good time to find good deals on plants. Garden centers and the large box stores generally lower their prices to reduce their plant inventory.

Understanding how plants grow and survive helps you ensure your garden will thrive. If you have any questions on this or any other gardening subjects, please feel free to contact me.

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

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