Fall Really Is The Time For Planting
Change of Seasons
Fall is the time for planting, a tag line used by more than one commercial garden center. The generally cooler temperatures and increased precipitation make it ideal for new plants to take hold. In some regions, fall is early to come and quick to give way to winter. Where I am in Texas, it is often difficult to distinguish fall from late summer, as the heat is typically with us through late October. Regardless of your region, you have an opportunity to get new plants in the ground, clean out your beds, and get them ready for spring.
Prepare Your Beds
In early September, start the process of removing spring and summer annuals from your planting beds and perform a thorough weeding. If your beds are mulched, and you do not plan to add anything to them until the spring, take the opportunity to rake them out and amend the soil with an organic supplement or fertilizer. I like to till in some peat moss and a touch of manure. Both help keep the soil "alive" and the peat moss will help with drainage, even after a hard freeze. Avoid, as much as possible, tilling your mulch in to the soil. Wood based chipped or shredded mulch can cause problems with pH levels in the soil as it decays. While it is helpful and looks good on top of the ground, once it is mixed in well with the dirt, it can be trouble. As a money saving step, I rake out the mulch from my beds and save it.
After I have amended my soil, and planted anything new for the fall, I redistribute the mulch. It may not look as good as it did when you first put it down in the spring, but it is still doing its job, and you'll rake it out and replace it with new mulch in the spring. Also, in my beds that will not be planted again until the spring, I add a good dose of a liquid (spray on) weed killer and a pre-emergent such as Preen. While no anti-weed product is 100% effective, this combination greatly reduced the likelihood that I will have to be weeding the beds through the winter, especially if it is mild.
For beds that will receive fall flowers, I follow the same steps for amending the soil. I may add additional fertilizer or additional soil if necessary prior to planting. There are few beds around my house that I fill with fall flowers. Typically, all of my fall color comes from container plantings, though I do have mums that have become annuals because of our climate, which are in beds.
Choices for Fall
If you are a fan or ornamental and shade trees, as I am, fall is the perfect time to get new young trees in the ground. They will have just enough time to settle in before the changes in temperature compel them to go dormant. Evergreen shrubs and trees do especially well when planted in the fall. When a tree is trying to establish itself, warm days and cool nights are just what the doctor ordered. Evergreens such as boxwood and holly will adapt more readily to their new environment when the temperature on the mild side. The same can be said for deciduous trees, as they will have a better chance of rooting if they are not suffering extremely high temps (or extreme cold). As with any new planting, you will need to keep it thoroughly watered, and check the USDA climate zones to make sure the plant is suitable for your climate. If you plant something that is well out of your zone, you cannot expect it to do well, no matter how carefully you prepped your beds or what time of year you planted. Likewise, if you do not water properly, you run the risk of harming the plant. Just as you can starve the new plant of moisture by not watering, you can over water and essentially drown the roots and encourage fungus and disease. Follow the grower's suggestions for watering a specific plant.
If flowers are more your thing, garden mums should be at the top of your list. These plants are hardy and will survive past the first frost (in most cases) and often last up until the first hard freeze. I have mums in some of my beds that have become annuals because of our climate. They bloom from late spring through late fall, which for this part of Texas means I have color in my beds from early June through the end of November just from the mums. Up North, garden, or hardy mums as they are sometimes called, do best in containers. Handled properly, you can keep your container mums looking great through multiple frosts and, if you are really diligent about bringing them inside over night when it gets cold, have them looking good through Thanksgiving.
Ornamental cabbage and other decorative greens are solid fall plants as well. They tend to be cold hardy and take well during the transition of fall. With proper care, you may be able to keep them well into the winter months. When living in Southeastern New England, we had ornamental cabbage in a few of our sunny beds, which we would plant new each fall. There were years that they lasted well in to January.
For perennial fans, Autumn Joy (Sedum or Stone Crop) is a wonderful flower to have in your beds for the fall. While this plant really needs to be in the ground in the spring, you can find it in bloom in nurseries in late August and September and it will take well if planted in the fall. This perennial is a fall bloomer, though you may have blooms all year, depending on your climate. Hostas are also a solid plant to have in the fall beds. While these plants typically take a season to fully establish themselves, and come back fuller the following spring, planting now gives them enough time to settle in for the winter and can bring some variety to your planting beds.
If you are looking for a splash of color from a few annuals, you are likely to have a broad selection depending on your zone. The "New England aster" and Goldenrod are two choices that can liven up any bed or container. These plants are typically put in the ground in the ground in the spring, but since they are fall bloomers, they are often found available at most garden centers. You will frequently find the two in "fall arrangements" that feature a selection of seasonal plants, which are perfect for containers.
What do you like to plant in the fall?
All for Fall
I would be remiss if I did not mention vegetables that are harvest ready in September, October and November. All of these plants can be grown from seed or seedlings if planted in the late spring or early summer. The king of all fall harvests, of course, is the pumpkin. Pumpkins are easy to grow and maintain. The challenges are space - the vines like to stretch out and the "fruit" can be large - and critters - pumpkins are favorites for skunks, raccoons and squirrels. If you have space and the patience for critter control, you can add dimension and color to your fall beds with just a few seeds in the ground. Other fall favorites are gourds, cauliflower, squash and Brussels sprouts.
As you can see there are endless options for a beautiful fall garden. While some flowers and plants take planning, most can be found in bloom and added to your beds or pots just in time to mark the transition of the seasons. As always, bed and pot preparation is the key to success, along with proper watering. Fall is the season in which we get everything ready for winter, but there is no reason why we can't enjoy it with a little color and variety. Taking care of your planting beds now will make prep easier in the Spring. Also, choosing to use containers for your fall selections will make clean up for winter simple, and may allow you to extend the life of your fall selections. Remember to remove your fall annuals and prune back perennials after they have gone dormant. If you do have your beds occupied by fall tenants, be sure to do your prep for the winter. No matter the choice, bed or pot, fall certainly is the time for planting.