When most people think about the fall they think about dead leaves, diminishing light, and the inevitable appearance of old man winter. No person in their right mind would consider planting at this time of year, right? Wrong! Savvy gardeners know that autumn is the perfect time to make improvements to your garden by adding new plants as well as dividing larger existing plants and moving them about to add new life to your plant beds.
Landscapes are always in a state of flux – plants grow, flourish (or languish), and evolve as they mature. While it would be nice to think you can just plant your garden and sit back as it fills in and then just stays that way, that’s simply not what happens. Plants – like people – are individuals and develop individually, depending on conditions and outside influences. Our job as gardeners is to support their growth the best way we can.
Take perennials, for example. Some plants fill in and grow huge in one season. Others limp along for a few years before really taking hold and taking off. You need to respond accordingly.
For big, bad, bold growers, fall is the time to dig them up, split them in two, three or even four pieces and spread them to other areas of your garden where they can act as a renewable resource for color, shape, and texture. Use them to spread the love to other areas that may be lacking.
Don’t give up on weaker plants just because they appear to be struggling. Instead of ripping them out and tossing them on the compost pile, consider giving them a second chance. Perhaps let them stay where they are for another season and see how they do with a little extra attention. Or consider moving them to a new location where conditions may be more favorable.
If you have a garden that suffers from “thin” soil – that is, it’s lacking organic matter or has low pH and fertility – fall is the time to make amends by adding some compost and lime, and working them gently into the soil with cultivating tools. The microbes will love the boost. In the spring add some nutrients and watch things really take off in your garden.
Even though the air may be chilly, the soil is still warm from the summer sun. Below ground, roots are growing, microbes and earthworms are doing their work, and things are still biologically active. Even if a slight frosty crust forms on top, don’t be fooled. It will be weeks before there’s any frost deeper in the ground that could affect planting. So, if you have plants to move or get into the ground for the first time, now’s the time to do it.
Fall is when plants are actively working on below-ground root-building. In the spring they put their energy into pushing out buds for new shoots and leaves and flowers. The "juices" are flowing up.
Gardeners should take advantage of autumn to install new plants -- perennials, shrubs, trees and even spring flowering bulbs. All the plant energy will go into root-building, making them stronger plants in the spring and more resilient plants if we find ourselves in another drought situation. That resiliency comes from having deeper, longer roots than the plants installed in the spring whose energy went to shoots and leaves, not roots.
Image: Planting an Echinacea 'Powwow Wild Berry' in November!
In New England, we are blessed to be able to predict the return of fall rains after a hot, dry summer.
This year was an especially tough one with one of the worst droughts in a decade. Plants installed this spring struggled because they barely had any roots to help them pull up what little water was available. As we mentioned, plants installed in the fall will focus almost all their energy on root-building and that takes water. Fortunately fall rains tend to last longer in the soil, aided by a weak sun and cool temperatures that slow evaporation and drying.
As an added benefit, plants are going dormant in the fall, so once root-building is complete, the plants slowly go to sleep for a long winter nap. They don't need to work all that hard and this gives them a much-needed rest before spring.
So take advantage of the fall and plant, divide, and amend your garden. Check out garden center sales, too -- plants selling at an end-of-the-season discount will do far better in the ground than they will stored above ground in pots. And remember, those plants stored in pots over the winter at the garden center are the same plants they’ll sell to you at full price in the spring, so benefit from the savings and do your garden planting now. Your plants and your wallet will thank you for it.