Fall is about hope. The seeds we sow and the bulbs we plant now help us dream, plan — and look ahead to next year.
After a string of dry, dusty years, the plentiful rain, cool nights and nonstop gardening season we’ve been enjoying have been a wonderful relief. What’s more, a lot of folks are saying this is typical of how mountain weather (and life in general) used to be. But fall planting isn’t just for dry years. Whatever the current weather, there are good reasons for devoting the same energy and enthusiasm to planting in autumn.
This is a time for picking up where we left off the previous spring, a time for completing projects and taking advantage of typical winter weather patterns to help promote future garden success. It’s a great time for evaluating past efforts, cleaning things up — and planting.
Why is fall such a great time to plant? The lower soil temperatures and winter rains encourage root growth in cool-season grasses, bulbs, perennials, shrubs and trees, while helping new plantings get established so they’re ready for spring. Trees and shrubs do particularly well when planted in the fall, because the quiet months of winter allow them the extra time they need to establish roots. Fall planting also helps plants avoid the stress of trying to grow roots and shoots at the same time during an early-summer drought (the kind that often follows on the heels of spring planting). Just about anything can be planted in the fall, except for warm-season grasses, tender annuals, perennials and tropicals. These hothouse babies prefer the heat of summer.
Fall is also a good time for dividing early-spring-flowering perennials (if you can find them), so they won’t be disturbed during their peak bloom period (which is when gardeners typically try to divide them) and you won’t have to worry about breaking off fragile, growing tips. This works equally well for those perennials that bloom in mid-to-late summer (such as hosta, yarrow and astilbe). And though most perennials can be divided and moved anytime during the season, some exceptions — such as peonies and Siberian iris — prefer being handled in the fall. Applying light mulch around fall-planted perennials prevents their being pushed out of the ground as the soil freezes and thaws through the winter months, until they can develop new roots to firmly anchor them. (Again, be sure to provide water during dry periods or until the winter rains begin.)
Spring bulbs, of course, are best planted in the fall, so they have ample time to get ready for a colorful spring show. From early October through December, plant liberal amounts of spring bulbs in areas where you’ll see them, come early spring. Small bulbs in the lawn and larger ones in the border will give you a lift when you most need it but least expect it. Let them surprise you. There’s nothing like walking past a cheery patch of daffodils on a cold, frosty morning to let you know that winter’s almost over.
If turf is what you’re after, there’s no better time than now to establish, renovate or overseed a cool-season-fescue lawn. Seeding in late summer or early fall gives seeds ample time to germinate and take hold. Through the winter, the turf will continue to establish itself, and by late spring, it should have developed a dense cover. This helps the turf withstand dry-weather stresses and invading weeds (which like to take advantage of the bare spots that often develop in spring-seeded lawns). Turf lovers accustomed to struggling with spring-seeding their lawn can eliminate those frustrations — and increase their hammock time — by reassigning those labors to the fall.
On the other hand, you could decide to plant a handsome, low-maintenance ground cover. The choice is yours.
But before you get started on fall-planting plans, take a little time to evaluate this growing season. Think about what worked well and what didn’t. Then consider dividing, replanting, moving or even removing some inhabitants of your garden to better suit the individual plants, the garden as a whole — and you. After that, you can move on to working up a wish list and making the rounds of nurseries and garden centers, which will soon be stocking up. If you don’t find the plants you want there, see if they can special-order something for you. If that doesn’t work, wait for the catalogs to start rolling in. (Try not to drool too much over the new and exciting offers splashed across the covers.) And of course, swapping stories and plants with friends and neighbors helps create the kind of garden that everyone loves to revisit year after year.
Pruning broken and dead limbs is always a good idea, especially given the heavy rains and winds we’ve had this year. Selectively removing branches and what I call “long hairs” will help maintain the health and beauty of trees and shrubs. Even spring-flowering plants can be tidied up, if you do it carefully. But be conservative, and try not to remove too many of the spring-flower buds that have already been set.
Even though vacations are over, school’s back in session, harvests are coming in, and gardeners are ready for a break, consider this a time to renew, revive, plan and plant in the garden. And if you’re feeling stressed, just remember: Fall gardening is not only excellent for the plants, it can also help ease the annual spring crunch, enabling gardeners to actually enjoy the spring season (for a change).