For many a gardener, fall is a time to slow down. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the season past and clean up your yard. But those spring and summer planters may be missing out on the best time of year for gardening—the fall. Beyond planting spring-blooming daffodils, tulips and other bulbs, the fall offers both great weather and great bargains for beautifying your yard.
Capitalize on fall’s assessing opportunities. Now is the perfect time to make calm and prudent planting decisions. In springtime, the abundance of choices, enticing displays and/or seductive catalog photos, not to mention the end of winter’s cabin fever, can impel you to buy the wrong plants for your garden’s soil or daily sunlight situation, or bring home more plants than you can wedge in.
By early autumn, you’ve watched and spent time in your yard and are aware of where the sunniest spots are and where the rains puddle. This time of year, you’re also best able to identify where the gaps are—where you’d like another plant to fill in or flower color to diversify.
Choose fall’s more mature plants. Many plants offered now are leftovers or overstock from the season gone by, which actually works to your advantage. The garden center or nursery nurtured them all summer, and now they are more mature, larger and have bigger root systems. Thus they begin life in your yard bigger and stronger. Don’t worry if their foliage is no longer fresh and beautiful or their flowering period has come and gone. Get those roots in the ground, and let them get established this fall. Next spring, watch with delight as these plants surge into vigorous growth, outpacing any new spring additions.
Take advantage of fall’s gentler conditions. In contrast to spring, fall soil is warm, a welcoming situation for the root systems of shrubs and perennials.
Also, in many regions, spring is a wetter, muddier season than fall, so fall planting actually can be easier and more enjoyable. And yet, fall rains arriving as the weeks go by spare you some of the time and effort of watering the new plants. Cooler temperatures also mean that you don’t have to water so much.
Sunlight is less intense now, too. No flowering plant likes to be popped out of a pot and into the ground when conditions are hot and dry. It’s too stressful—they’ll wilt as their roots struggle to access moisture and deliver it up to the plant above.
Last but not least, weeds are essentially done growing and expanding their numbers for the year. Unlike spring-planted shrubs and perennials, fall garden additions won’t have to compete with them for space, moisture and nutrients.
Plant as fall begins, not when it’s well underway. This gives your fall-planted selections maximum time to start growing in place before winter dormancy. If your new plants have only two or three weeks before a frost hits, they may struggle or die. Ideally, get them in the ground a good six to eight weeks before any frost is expected. To figure out the right time to plant for where you live, you need to find out when the first hard frost is expected in your area and count back. Make a quick call to your nearest Cooperative Extension office, or look for predictions from your local weather sources.
Plant properly for best results. Planting this time of year is otherwise similar to spring planting. You should still dig a hole that is wider and deeper—by a few inches on all sides—than the pot the plant arrived in. You should still amend the planting hole with organic matter. Use half compost and half native soil, well-mixed.
In fall, however, take time with the roots—they are the stars of this project. Tease a dense root system apart with your fingers to loosen it up. If this is not possible, score the sides of the roots vertically with a sharp knife every few inches, approximately one-quarter-inch deep. This does not harm the roots. On the contrary, it inspires them to regenerate.
Lastly, as with spring planting, create a basin where water can collect and go down directly where needed instead of running off. Line up the perimeter with the outer edge of the plant’s current width. Pour water in or deliver it with the hose until it stops sinking in.
Water right up to the brink of winter. In fall’s milder, cooler days, plants are less prone to wilting or drying out. Still, give them a good soaking, as described above, every few days their first week, then taper off to once a week. Continue this practice until the ground freezes. Skip when there are good soaking rains.
Do not feed. In a significant departure from spring planting, do not fertilize your newcomers. Plant food would only inspire new leaves, stems or even flower buds. Should any buds appear, snip them off with clippers. The plants’ focus must be on root development, so they are strong heading into winter.
Last-minute winter prep. Local weather reports will alert you when the first frost is expected. Several days beforehand, swing into action. If fall rains don’t do this for you, give each newcomer one last good soaking.
Do not cut back the plants. It is better for a perennial or shrub’s survival to leave tidying until spring.
Lastly, using your hands or a shovel, place three or four inches of compost and/or chopped-up fall leaves over each planting basin. This protective layer helps prevent “frost-heaving,” where temperature fluctuations push root systems up out of the ground.
Enjoy next spring’s payoff. Your fall-planted perennials and shrubs will have a significant head start on their spring-planted counterparts. The root growth they made in your yard before winter came will fuel robust growth. What a joy it will be to see them burst forth!
Savvy Fall Plant Shopping
Health: Always check for signs of trouble. Insect pests can hide under leaves, along stems and where side stems meet main ones. Diseased leaves may be mottled, spotted or have distorted shapes.
Proportion: A shrub or perennial’s top growth ought to be no higher than two-to-three times the depth of the container it comes in. This indicates a good ratio of roots to stems.
Roots: When you pop a plant out of its pot (you may do this before buying at local nurseries), the roots should be white and crisp. Avoid those with black, wiry or mushy roots and those with very thick or tangled root systems, which don’t transplant as well.
Mail-order plant nurseries welcome your business this time of year. They have an interesting selection and will consider your location, advising you on choices as well as setting an appropriate delivery time. Order in early fall. Nurseries deliver nice and quick! Perennials and shrubs that I’ve had great success with fall planting…
Perennials: Astilbe, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, daylily, hardy (“cranesbill”) geranium, iris, peony, phlox, Russian sage, sedum, yarrow.
Shrubs: Chokeberry, camellia, cotoneaster, fothergilla, heavenly bamboo (nandina), hydrangea, rhododendron, roses, shrubby dogwood, spirea, witch hazel.
Good mail-order sources: Avant Gardens, Bluestone Perennials, Fieldstone Gardens, Forestfarm, High Country Gardens, Plant Delights Nursery, Spring Hill Nurseries, Wayside Gardens and White Flower Farm.