The Best Time To Plant

By Ken Hodge
Photos courtesy of Ken Hodge
People are always asking “when is the best time to plant.” The fall & winter are good times to plant generally, because the days are getting cooler & shorter. Also the plants are slowing down & starting to go dormant. But really there is no time like the present, no matter what time of year it is. I’ve had friends that waited 6 months to plant in the fall & were too busy, so they waited until the next fall. So waiting for a certain season can waste time that your plants & trees could be growing.

Another way of looking at it is “the best time to plant a tree or fruit tree was 5 or 10 years ago”. We are heading into the fall, so I would take advantage of whatever each season has to offer. Planting trees & fruit trees can be safest in fall & winter, because the deciduous trees will be losing their leaves, so even if you neglect the watering every day or two that is required when transplanting a tree, the weather & dormancy of the tree is more forgiving.

The weather in the Sacramento Valley is pretty mild in winter, so even though deciduous plants & trees aren’t growing in winter, their roots continue to grow during our relatively mild winters. Evergreen shrubs & trees slow their growth down in winter, but again the roots continue to develop & get established over the winter for the spring push. I’ve noticed when we heal in sand, all the bare root fruit trees in December & early January that the root growth starts immediately. Even two weeks after healing the trees in our sand bed, well before the trees start leafing out in early February, the fine white roots have starting to anchor the fruit trees into the sand. The temperature of the soil down where the roots are growing doesn’t change nearly as much as the temperature above ground.

Fall & winter is a time when many people plant their trees & fruit trees. Delicate trees like Dogwoods & Japanese Maples are more successfully planted now, because they can get rooted & established before the heat starts rising in the late spring & summer. The temperature is nicer for the gardeners as well. It’s good to thoughtfully lay out a fruit orchard or grape vineyard. We have a ripening chart at Hodge’s

Nursery, so we can help you select a variety of ripening dates. The broader the times the various fruits get ripe, the more days of the year, you can pick & eat tree ripened fruit. Also less fruit is wasted & falling on the ground by not having everything come ripe at once.

Another gardening technique, that’s worked well for our family orchards & vineyard, is to plant the fruit trees just 5 feet apart within the rows & keep the trees dwarfed by summer pruning. It’s easier than you think & you are always welcome to see our demonstration fruit orchards at our nursery. By pruning back the taller growth on the fruit trees in early summer & late summer, you will never let the fruit trees get out of hand. I tell people to prune about Memorial Day & Labor Day to make it easy to remember.

In our more mature orchard we have 60 different varieties of fruit trees planted in an area that would accommodate only 3 full sized fruit trees. And these dwarf trees bear abundantly, but you’ll never need a ladder to pick the fruit, prune the trees or thin out the extra fruit. You could literally farm the trees from a walker.

Our grape vineyard is similarly laid out with the vines planted on the diamond spacing of about 7 feet apart. Instead of building a trellis system, which takes time & engineering, I thought we would try growing the grapes as standards or small trees. Many gardeners don’t grow grapes, I think because they don’t have the time to build an arbor or trellis system. That’s why I didn’t have a vineyard for the first 20 years since I started the nursery.

To stake the grapes, I used 5/8 inch rebar & cut 20 lengths into 3 sections of 6 feet 8 inch long & pounded them into the ground, leaving about 5 feet above the ground for the grape tree to grow on. Tee posts would also make good stakes for growing your grape mini-trees on. We planted in the fall a few years ago & the table & wine grapes grew to the tops of the 5 foot stakes & more importantly, they bore clusters of grapes the first summer. Grapes bore fruit on this years wood, unlike most fruit trees that bear on last years wood.

Growing your own fruits & vegetables is an important skill that many gardeners are developing & for good reason. There are always questions about what was sprayed on your food or was it grown from a plant genetically modified. By growing food yourself, you have control over those things & it’s a healthy lifestyle.