Getting Your Garden Ready for Fall Planting

getting your garden ready for fall plantinggetting your garden ready for fall planting
By Marianne Willburn, gardening expert and author.

 

Did you know that in most cases, fall is actually a much better time to plant than spring? And we’re not just talking about fall-planted 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 your watering duties.

sprouting plantsprouting plant

Last, but certainly not least, fall is far less busy. 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. Let’s look at a few general guidelines for fall plating:

  • Planting Time: Actual fall planting times vary greatly by region. The good news is that we ship your fall-planted perennials and flower bulbs when it's time to plant in your zone! It’s good to know your regional signs (such as the first frost, the onset of fall rains, or the freezing of soil). If hesitant, check with your local state extension agent who can give you advice.
  • Soil Preparation: In most areas, it will help to have compost on hand as a soil amendment (rarely required for wildflowers).
  • Fertilizer: Avoid extra fertilizer that is heavy in nitrogen, as the resulting growth will most certainly be killed by frosts and the plant will be damaged or killed. You can use bone meal to promote root growth, but be sure to use a very small amount and mix it well with the soil, as too much phosphate can have a detrimental effect on microscopic soil organisms.
  • Water: Immediately after planting, give your new plants or seeds a good watering!


fall planting wildflower seedsfall planting wildflower seeds

Fall Planting Wildflower Seeds

Fall planted seedlings are generally stronger and earlier than spring seedlings. They mimic the natural cycle of seed heads dispersing ripened seeds at the end of the season. 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. Find your local frost dates here. Click the button below to view our step-by-step guide to planting wildflower seeds in the fall!



Fall Planting Woodland Flowers

  • 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.
  • 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.

Shop Woodland Wildflowers

  1. Blue Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica

    Virginia Bluebell’s gorgeous flowers start out as lovely, pastel pink buds and open up into vivid, true blue blooms. A perfect addition to part and full-shade woodland gardens, pla...

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    Virginia Bluebells Virginia Bluebells Mertensia virginica
    As low as $18.98 Sale $12.34
    Per Bag of 3
    Virginia Bluebell’s gorgeous flowers start out as lovely, pastel pink buds and open up into vivid, true blue blooms. A perfect addition to part and full-shade woodland gardens, plant Virginia Bluebells to see early spring blooms and frequent visits from pollinators. This native plant increases in size each year and will form a beautiful colony over time with almost no care from the gardener. (Mertensia virginica)
    Learn More
  2. Woodland Wildflower Collection

    The Woodland Wildflower Collection includes 6 varieties of beloved plants found in the woods of North America. Blooming in the spring as the sun peeks through the tree canopy, each v...

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    Woodland Wildflower Collection
    $113.98 Sale $74.03
    Per Collection of 18
    The Woodland Wildflower Collection includes 6 varieties of beloved plants found in the woods of North America. Blooming in the spring as the sun peeks through the tree canopy, each variety will provide rich foliage in summer and autumn as they spread and naturalize. Includes Virginia Bluebells, Snowy White Trillium, Dwarf Crested Iris, Jack in the Pulpit, Bloodroot, and Dutchman's Breeches.
    Learn More
  3. White Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, Wake-Robin

    White Trillium opens exquisite white blooms up to 5” across in mid-spring. Flowers fade to a pretty pale pink. This woodland wildflower requires patience but is well worth the wa...

    Learn More
    White Trillium White Wake Robin, Wood Lily Trillium grandiflorum
    As low as $18.98 Sale $12.34
    Per Bag of 3
    White Trillium opens exquisite white blooms up to 5” across in mid-spring. Flowers fade to a pretty pale pink. This woodland wildflower requires patience but is well worth the wait. Seeds produced by the plants and underground roots and will spread slowly into drifts of trillium that look like a white blanket covering the ground. (Trillium grandiflorum)
    Learn More
  4. Pink Bleeding Heart, Dicentra

    Old Fashioned Pink Bleeding Heart is a popular shade perennial with arching stems of lovely, heart-shaped flowers that bloom each spring. Deeply-cut, blue green foliage remains fresh...

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    Pink Bleeding Heart Pink Common Bleeding Heart Dicentra spectabilis Pink
    As low as $11.98 Sale $7.79
    Per Bag of 1
    Old Fashioned Pink Bleeding Heart is a popular shade perennial with arching stems of lovely, heart-shaped flowers that bloom each spring. Deeply-cut, blue green foliage remains fresh and healthy throughout the summer, helping to fill out the garden bed and provide a graceful backdrop for summer blooms. A timeless classic, this plant inspires nostalgia whenever it's noticed! Deer resistant. (Dicentra spectabilis)
    Learn More


Fall Planting Perennials

  • 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
  • Plant 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 it well. (Add more soil when if backfill has settled through watering) 

  • In most cases, a two inch layer of mulch placed around the plant, leaving at least an inch of space around the crown of the plant, is a great idea for extra root protection over the winter. 


holding barerootholding bareroot
planting plantplanting plant

Shop Perennials

  1. Lamium White Nancy, Lamium maculatum, Dead Nettle

    White Nancy is a mat forming flowering groundcover for shady areas. Use with hostas and other shade lovers. (Lamium maculatum)...

    Learn More
    White Nancy Lamium White Nancy Dead Nettle Lamium maculatum White Nancy
    As low as $9.98 Sale $6.49
    Per Plant - 3" Pot
    White Nancy is a mat forming flowering groundcover for shady areas. Use with hostas and other shade lovers. (Lamium maculatum)
    Learn More
  2. White Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, Wake-Robin

    White Trillium opens exquisite white blooms up to 5” across in mid-spring. Flowers fade to a pretty pale pink. This woodland wildflower requires patience but is well worth the wa...

    Learn More
    White Trillium White Wake Robin, Wood Lily Trillium grandiflorum
    As low as $18.98 Sale $12.34
    Per Bag of 3
    White Trillium opens exquisite white blooms up to 5” across in mid-spring. Flowers fade to a pretty pale pink. This woodland wildflower requires patience but is well worth the wait. Seeds produced by the plants and underground roots and will spread slowly into drifts of trillium that look like a white blanket covering the ground. (Trillium grandiflorum)
    Learn More
  3. Blue Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica

    Virginia Bluebell’s gorgeous flowers start out as lovely, pastel pink buds and open up into vivid, true blue blooms. A perfect addition to part and full-shade woodland gardens, pla...

    Learn More
    Virginia Bluebells Virginia Bluebells Mertensia virginica
    As low as $18.98 Sale $12.34
    Per Bag of 3
    Virginia Bluebell’s gorgeous flowers start out as lovely, pastel pink buds and open up into vivid, true blue blooms. A perfect addition to part and full-shade woodland gardens, plant Virginia Bluebells to see early spring blooms and frequent visits from pollinators. This native plant increases in size each year and will form a beautiful colony over time with almost no care from the gardener. (Mertensia virginica)
    Learn More
  4. Hepatica acutiloba

    One of springs earliest woodland wildflowers, and always considered one of the most beautiful, native Hepatica is quite common in eastern forests. The blooms vary dramatically in col...

    Learn More
    Hepatica Hepatica, Liverwort Hepatica acutiloba
    As low as $18.98 Sale $12.34
    Per Bag of 3
    One of springs earliest woodland wildflowers, and always considered one of the most beautiful, native Hepatica is quite common in eastern forests. The blooms vary dramatically in color, and range from white to lavender to (rarely) pink. Growing from 4 to 6" in height, lovely Hepatcia will spread and naturalize over time in most soils with dappled sunlight. (Hepatica acutiloba)
    Learn More


Fall Planting Shrubs

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.

Shop Shrubs

  1. Annabelle Snowball Hydrangea

    Annabelle' Hydrangea is famous for its huge, snow-white blooms and excellent cold hardiness. This shorter variety grows 3 - 5 ft tall and flowers reliably, even after severe winters ...

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    Annabelle Snowball Hydrangea Snowball Hydrangea Annabelle Hydrangea arborescens Annabelle
    $19.98 Sale $12.99
    Per Plant - 3.5" Pot
    Annabelle' Hydrangea is famous for its huge, snow-white blooms and excellent cold hardiness. This shorter variety grows 3 - 5 ft tall and flowers reliably, even after severe winters and intentional pruning. Its enormous 10" blooms and ability to adapt to both cold and heat have made 'Annabelle' one of the most popular hydrangeas in the country. (Hydrangea arborescens)
    Learn More
  2. Blue Hydrangea All Summer Beauty, Hydrangea macrophylla, Mophead Hydrangea

    'All Summer Beauty' Hydrangea is a compact, long-blooming mophead variety that produces big, bouncy flowers on 4 ft shrubs. Because it blooms on both new growth and old wood, flowers...

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    All Summer Beauty Mophead Hydrangea Mophead Hydrangea All Summer Beauty Hydrangea macrophylla All Summer Beauty
    $19.98 Sale $12.99
    Per Plant - 3.5" Pot
    'All Summer Beauty' Hydrangea is a compact, long-blooming mophead variety that produces big, bouncy flowers on 4 ft shrubs. Because it blooms on both new growth and old wood, flowers will form throughout the season, even after a harsh winter - which can be the undoing of other hydrangeas. Known for its bright blue blooms in acid soils, expect to see shades of pink and purple where the ground is more alkaline. (Hydrangea macrophylla)
    Learn More
  3. Hydrangea, Oak Leaf Hydrangea Ruby Slippers

    'Ruby Slippers' Oak Leaf Hydrangea delivers oversized, cone-shaped blooms that arrive in light pink and deepen to a reddish-magenta as they age. A compact shrub, 'Ruby Slippers' is a...

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    Ruby Slippers Oak Leaf Hydrangea Oak Leaf Hydrangea Ruby Slippers Hydrangea quercifolia Ruby Slippers
    $29.98 Sale $19.49
    Per Plant - 3.5" Pot
    'Ruby Slippers' Oak Leaf Hydrangea delivers oversized, cone-shaped blooms that arrive in light pink and deepen to a reddish-magenta as they age. A compact shrub, 'Ruby Slippers' is a fine choice for small spaces and planting in containers, or training into a low hedge. Its lobed, oak-like leaves change to burgundy as fall appoaches, bringing another layer of vibrant color to the landscape. (Hydrangea quercifolia)
    Learn More
  4. Arctic Fire® Dogwood, Cornus sericea Farrow, Photo Courtesy of Proven Winners

    Arctic Fire® Dogwood provides all the beauty of red-twig dogwood in a dwarf form, perfect for smaller gardens. Brilliant red stems color the winter garden and cuttings are prized fo...

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    Arctic Fire® Dogwood Arctic Fire® Dogwood Cornus sericea Farrow
    $36.98 Sale $24.04
    Per Plant - 4" Pot
    Arctic Fire® Dogwood provides all the beauty of red-twig dogwood in a dwarf form, perfect for smaller gardens. Brilliant red stems color the winter garden and cuttings are prized for holiday arrangements. Plant as a centerpiece in winter containers or mass in the landscape. Green summer foliage turns shades of red and orange in autumn before fading to purple. (Cornus sericea Farrow)
    Learn More


Fall Planting Bulbs & Bare Roots

  • 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 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.


planting bulbsplanting bulbs
hosta bareroothosta bareroot

Shop Fall-Planted Flower Bulbs



When is fall planting NOT a good idea?

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!

indoor forcing bulbsindoor forcing bulbs


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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