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Spring is an exciting season and is quite rightly filled with marketing and messaging to get out and get planting, but did you know that in most cases, fall is actually a much better time to plant? And we’re not just talking about spring bulbs either!
As nights lengthen and days begin to cool off, the soil is still quite warm, providing a wonderful environment for plants to focus on root growth rather than putting energy into spring foliage and flower. By the time spring warms the soil and the earth gets moving again, plants have had plenty of time to establish strong, healthy roots and are raring to go!
Pests have slowed down for the season, most having completed their life cycles or begun their dormancy period over the winter. Weeds are also slowing down, giving new shrubs, perennials and wildflowers the ability to get established without suffocating competition. In many parts of the country, fall means rain, and rain means root development – lessening the watering duties of the gardener.
Last, but certainly not least, fall is far less busy for the gardener. Cooler days invite time spent in the garden, and the frenetic buzz of spring chores is still months away. It’s a terrific time to leisurely plant wildflower seeds, spring bulbs, perennials and shrubs. Before we tackle these one at a time, let’s look at a few general guidelines:
Fall planted seedlings are generally stronger and earlier than spring seedlings as they mimic the natural cycle of seed heads dispersing ripened seeds at the end of the season. However, in order to keep your seeds from germinating too soon and possibly being killed by a tough winter, wait to spread seeds until after the first killing frost.
Four to six weeks before your last frost, clear the area you wish to plant of woody debris and any rooted invasives. Cutting invasive plants (such as multiflora rose) down to the ground is not enough – the plant must be dug up or your new plantings will suffer.
Prepare the soil by mixing in a generous amount of organically rich compost (decomposed leaf ‘mold’ is a perfect amendment), and plant according to specific instructions as many woodland plants are shipped as tubers or dormant roots. Mark planting sites with an easy to see flag or marker so you can keep an eye on your new plantings easily and keep the area clear of woody debris over the winter.
Find the ‘sweet spot’ where new plants won’t be stressed by the heat of late summer, but will benefit from the onset of cool rains and frost-free conditions – generally four to six weeks before the first frost in your area. Give your plant a good, deep hole with a base of workable, amended soil to encourage strong root growth. If you have heavy clay soil, dig the hole twice the depth of the pot to ensure that the plant doesn’t sit in a waterlogged ‘clay pot’ all winter.
After removing the plant from the pot, lightly tease the roots away from their potted shape. If a plant is severely root bound you can be a bit rougher. Place the perennial at the same planting depth as it was in the pot and backfill the hole with amended soil. Water in well, and then add more soil when the backfill has settled through watering. In most cases, a two inch layer of mulch placed around the plant but not against the crown is a great idea for extra root protection over the winter.
Many of the same rules apply to shrubs as they do to perennials, however, as shrubs are generally larger than perennials, a few extra considerations should be noted. First, it is important to pay attention to spacing requirements for your particular variety. Moving a woody shrub after it’s established is possible but difficult, and will set the shrub back – better to place it well the first time.
Also, it is crucial not to skimp on the size of the hole you are digging for your shrub – generally two times the width and height of the original pot. Once you have backfilled half of the hole, water in well and allow the soil to settle within air pockets you often can’t see. Then, fill the rest of the hole, tamp down and water well once again. When you mulch, leave two inches around the base of the woody stems.
Plant bulbs when average night temperatures are in the 40 to 50F range to prevent rot or disease issues. This is usually about four weeks before your last frost. Make it easy on yourself from the beginning by mixing a wheelbarrow of half organic compost and half native soil to amend each hole before planting.
For bulbs, dig a small hole with a depth of two to three times the height of the bulb, leaving an inch of friable (crumbly and workable) soil in the bottom. Add another inch of amended soil, plant the bulb right side up and fill the hole with native or amended soil. Don’t forget to mark your bulb planting site with sticks or markers to avoid accidentally digging them up later.
Bare roots are planted in a similar way; however, it’s best to consult the packaging or web page instructions for specific planting depths and other important points. Some crowns must be placed inches below the soil line, while others should be exactly in-line with the soil. While some bare roots are woody and bulbous, others have many tender, stringy appendages that should be spread out evenly in all directions at planting time.
If you are planting a shrub or perennial that is at the very edge of winter hardiness for your area, it is best to wait until early spring when it will be given the luxury of a long growing season to fully establish itself. Messing with those tender roots so close to winter is a bad idea. However, if you ordered last spring, and never managed to get a zone-marginal plant in the ground (hey, it happens!), put the pot in a sheltered location where it can still benefit from rain, and cover it with a heavy layer of mulch for the winter. In mid-spring, uncover and plant according to specific directions.
As much as it’s hard to see the season end, there comes a point where it’s no longer advisable to plant. Many adventurous gardeners will plant very hardy shrubs and perennials up until the ground starts to freeze and take their chances, but generally, it’s best to allow plants and bulbs at least a few weeks of root development before that point.
Unplanted bulbs will not last through the winter, so if you didn’t get around to planting them, there is little to lose by planting in still-unfrozen ground. For some bulbs such as hybrid tulips, hyacinths and paperwhites, you can keep them in your refrigerator for forcing in February instead!
If you didn’t get your wildflower meadow prepared before the ground froze, it’s better to refrigerate seeds and wait until very early spring to sow than to sprinkle seeds on hard ground for ever-hungrier birds.
One of the very best reasons for planting in the fall is the discovery of those new plantings in the spring. They’ll be flush with growth and adding something new to your garden without adding anything to your spring workload. It’s a win-win for the plant and for the gardener. Time to start making your wish list!
About the Author: Marianne is a Master Gardener and the author of the new book Big Dreams, Small Garden. You can read more at www.smalltowngardener.com or follow The Small Town Gardener on Facebook or Instagram.
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