Unless you are in zones 9 or 10, spring is usually the best time to plant bare-root fruit trees.
Why fall planting is not a good time to plant bare-root fruit trees
A recent article in Old Farmers Almanac claims that fall is the best time to plant trees. The article covers all kinds of trees, but for the specific case of planting bare-root fruit trees we respectfully disagree.
For customers in colder zones there are significant risks associated with planting bare-root fruit trees in the fall. The main concern is that a newly-planted fruit tree will not be able to cope with a sudden drop in temperatures below freezing, and while the real cold temperatures may not arrive until January / February, it is an unnecessary risk.
A common misunderstanding about fall planting is that "fall planting allows a tree plenty of time to establish its root system before winter". This is possibly true for container-grown trees, planted in late August or early September. However by the same token, if you transplant a bare-root tree at this time of year you are disturbing the roots while they are still active, which will check the growth of the tree. For this reason bare-root trees are not usually available for transplanting until late November - by which point the advantage of fall planting no longer applies.
It is also someimes said that fall planting allows the roots to get established in the ground over the winter. This is not true in most zones. By definition, the roots do not grow when the tree is dormant. In fact root growth slows to a halt below about 45F / 7C.
Another claim is that "soil is easier to prepare in the fall than in the spring". This is true - the soil will be drier and easier to work in the fall than in early spring when winter rain and snow melt is still around. The trick to spring planting therefore is to prepare the ground in the fall - don't actually dig the planting holes, but instead dig over an area of about 4ft diameter around the planting position, to a spade depth or more if you can manage it. This will loosen the soil structure and make it much easier to plant come the spring.
In summary fall planting offers no advantage over spring planting for most zones, and simply adds risk to the planting.
Spring planting is the best time to plant bare-root fruit trees
For mosts customers the best time to plant bare-root fruit trees is in early spring, as soon as the ground has thawed. Do not wait until the last frost date - that will be much too late, you can start as soon as the ground is workable again.
We only ship trees while they are still dormant - it is rarely a good idea to try to plant a bare-root fruit tree that has already broken dormancy. This is the key factor that governs shipping and planting times.
When planting bare-root fruit trees you need to consider not only the climate at the planting location but also the climate at the nursery - we ship from upstate New York where winters are long! Conversely, if you are planting trees supplied by nurseries in the southern states or southern California you will have the opposite problem, the trees will probably arrive too early, since they need to ship early before their trees break from dormancy.
The main catch with spring planting is that the rapid transition from dormancy to growth puts considerable demand on the root system. Fortunately some simple steps will help the new tree get established quickly. Firstly, make sure you cut the stem back on planting, as recommended in our planting instructions.
Secondly, pay attention to watering in the spring and summer, make sure the tree gets the water it needs - don't drown it, but do make sure you have a regular watering program in place. Lack of water is the most common reason for tree failures in the first summer after planting.
In other respects, the wake-up call of spring planting is a good thing for the tree, as it will help it break dormancy decisively.
Note that while spring is the best time to plant, don't delay placing your order until spring as we will have sold out by then. The best time to order is over the preceding summer!