When Is The Best Time To Plant?


August 5, 2020 | View PDF

One of the most common questions we receive at the nursery is, "When is the best time to plant?" As I write this, the month of July is drawing to a close and we'll soon be into August. It's surprising just how fast this summer has gone! The month of August usually has us starting to think about school and a return to our "indoor" environments. We are also approaching THE best time to plant ANYTHING that is a "perennial" planting.

For those of you who've forgotten what a "perennial" is, I'll give you just a brief reminder. A "perennial" plant is known to last for an extended period of time. Examples of such items would be; trees, shrubs, certain lawn grasses, and other non-woody plants. You might also think about the gardening term "annual". Remember that the annual only exists for ONE season. They flower to produce their seeds, so the seeds can sprout next year and the next generation can grow.

The best time to plant ANYTHING that is a "year after year" or "perennial" plant, is actually the fall. Up here in Northeast Montana and Northwest North Dakota, we are accustomed to a "grain-growing" mentality. Most of those crops we grow are annuals. These crops only live for a season. They are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. While not ALL agricultural crops are this way, many that we think of, are.  

Since this is what we are accustomed to we have to train our minds to the concept of "perennials". Like annuals, perennial plants do not grow "all the time" either. They grow for a season and then rest.

Spring: In the spring these plants burst forth with all kinds of new growth, putting forth leaves in all kinds of ways, eager to feed and strengthen themselves for another season. Providing ample and consistent water in the spring of the year will mean more and more vibrant new growth for these plants. The spring season is also a time for fertilizing these plants. A consistent dose of fertilizer or nutrients will mean good strong and healthy leaves. These leaves will then become the home of the plant's "production" and source of food. The roots carry the water up to the leaves where the leaves take in the sun and use the light and water to produce food. That food is then sent down the plants' stems and back to the roots. These plants will continue to produce new growth until mid-summer.

Summer: At or around the 4th of July most of these plants stop producing new leaves and instead begin to focus their energy back into the roots for winter storage. At this time, certain fertilizer blends can be "unhelpful" in our northern climate as they can focus the plant BACK into the production of leaves when they really should be starting to prepare for winter.

Fall: Why then is the fall the best time to plant? Well, one primary reason is that these perennial plants suffer less stress during this time of year. Anytime you plant something in a new space you disturb the roots by moving it. This means some minor "transplant shock" for the plant. Transplant shock is a fancy term for minor damage that occurs to roots. When the roots are disturbed it can make it difficult for these plants to feed their leaves and thus difficult for the leaves to produce the food that the plants need.

Spring plantings often mean transplant shock during a time when the plant will have to endure the most stress, the hot part of the summer. Droopy or wilted leaves can often evidence this. During hot summer months make sure your plants do not have a lack of moisture available to them.  

Planting in the fall moves the transplant shock to a time period that is generally much cooler. Temperatures in mid-August to early September are often much milder than they are in July.

In addition to temps being cooler, it is also a time when the soil is starting to cool off as well. Warm temperatures in summer can warm up the soil to temperatures above 60° making root development challenging as many of the organisms in the soil that help plants do not perform favorably to temperatures that are well above 60°F.

The Short Answer: So as some of you might be thinking, "get to the point". I will! The best way to determine when to plant in a climate is to look at your "First Average Frost Date". You then want to walk that date backward by 6-8 weeks. This puts those of us in North Dakota and Montana at the dates of Aug. 15 to around Sept. 15. Planting at this time of year allows for plenty of good root development before winter and you also keep transplant shock to a minimum during the hot summer months.

As always we are happy to be a resource for quality plant products as well as helpful gardening advice. We look forward to your next visit! Until then, good luck and happy growing!


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