Cooler weather has arrived, the trees are starting to change, and the kids have gone back to school. No matter what the calendar says, it’s fall, folks. It’s time to take a look at the garden and see what can be done in the next couple of months to fill some gaps.
Fall is great for planting trees, shrubs, and perennials! The cooler weather means plants aren’t stressed from heat, the bugs and other pests that like to munch on foliage (and gardeners) are mostly gone, and the soil stays moist much longer, so we can water less frequently. There’s still plenty of time left to get a good set of roots established before the really cold weather gets here, too. You can also enjoy the glorious fall foliage on the newly planted trees and shrubs, and the interesting seed heads on perennials a year ahead of time! There’s no need to wait for spring to plant that really cool plant you saw this fall.
The ideal time for planting in the fall is about 6 weeks before the first hard frost. In fall, warm soil encourages root growth, which is essential for good top growth in the spring. Roots will continue to grow until the ground freezes, and once spring rolls around, they will begin new growth as soon as the frost is gone. A spring-planted plant will get a slower start due to cold soils, and will lag behind, while the fall-planted plants are now becoming well established. Once summer arrives, fall-planted plants are better equipped to deal with heat and drought thanks to their bigger, deeper root system.
Mother Nature will also usually take care of a fair amount of the watering that needs to be done in fall as well (though she certainly gave us plenty of help this past summer, too!). Our Septembers and Octobers are pretty dependable for good, soaking rains, keeping the soil and new plant roots nice and moist. Don’t neglect fall applications of fertilizer, especially on new plantings! Compost and manures in the planting bed are always a good idea to add organic matter and return some basic nutrients to the soil. For additional feeding, use a slow release, low nitrogen fertilizer, as this will not encourage as much top growth. Higher levels of phosphorous and potassium (the 2nd and 3rd numbers on most fertilizer packages) will encourage root growth and cell strength, better preparing your new plants to last through the winter.
Fall is also an excellent time for transplanting trees and shrubs and dividing perennials, for the same reasons it’s good to plant from pots. Make sure the plants are well hydrated before and after the move, and perennials should be cut back to at least half their height to reduce visible transplant stress.
It’s time to think about spring bulbs now, too! Daffodils, crocus, tulips, and other spring bulbs should go in the ground soon. They need a period of cold to properly condition for flowering when the ground warms up next spring, and will actually start setting roots this fall. A bed of interplanted bulbs and perennials is much easier to create in the fall, since there is less risk of stressful damage to their root system. Perennial seeds can also be sprinkled into beds in the fall, and they will get a bigger jump on growth in the spring.
One last note about planting in the fall – it saves time in the spring that can be better spent enjoying a beautiful garden! Imagine just having to think about where the little annual spots of color are going to go, because the shrubs and perennials are put right where you wanted them, and are already growing and beautiful when the weather starts warming again.