Spring isn’t the only season that you can plant in. There are obvious fall choices, like bulbs. But it’s also a great time to plant trees, shrubs, cool-weather annuals, perennials, vegetables, and in some cases, seeds.
A field of tulips. Can you imagine digging all of those holes? Like my kids, Bambi doesn’t care who cooked or set the table, as long as dinner is ready.
We’ll start with the category that people are most familiar with: bulbs. There are all kinds of bulbs ranging from short, bright yellow winter aconite that carpets the ground in early spring when little else is out, to tall, majestic tulips that bloom when spring is almost over.
Pick out your bulbs early if you can, and start planting about six weeks before your freeze date. Here in zone 5b USDA, that’s usually around the end of November. However, I will confess that I’ve been seen frantically digging in half-frozen ground on a snowy Thanksgiving morning, trying to get some bulbs in before it was too late. So while the bulbs will probably make it if you plant later than you really should (assuming there are a couple of chances for the ground to thaw), it’s always better to give the bulbs a chance to settle in.
I’m not going to name all of the bulbs that can be planted, but there are a lot. They include winter aconite, puschkinia, Siberian squill, grape hyacinth, hyacinths, daffodils, tulips, Fritillaria, snowdrops, glory-of-the-snow, Spanish squill, crocus… The list goes on and on.
There are several things to remember when planting bulbs:
- Respect the bulb’s cultural requirements. Some bulbs like moisture and shade, and others like well-drained rock gardens. Make sure what you’ve picked works for where you’ve picked it.
- Consider the colors of your bulbs and the plants around them. Pink tulips might clash horribly with a neighboring redbud, for example.
- If you have problems with deer, the following bulbs are less attractive to them:
- Grape hyacinths
- Ornamental onions
- If you have problems with rabbits, use the above list with the exception of Crocus. However, Crocus tommasinianus seems to be less palatable to rabbits than other Crocus selections.
- For more naturalized plantings, don’t space your bulbs out evenly. Just toss them on the ground and plant them where they land. It will look a lot more natural.
- Plant your bulbs at the proper depth. Smaller bulbs are usually shallower, and larger bulbs require deeper holes.
Because pansies can’t handle summer heat but do well in cool weather, they are a staple of container gardens in early spring and fall. They’ll continue blooming past frost until a hard freeze sets in, or sometimes through the entire winter in warmer climates. What many people don’t know is that they can overwinter if planted in the ground, they can survive winter temperatures as low as -30F and come back again in the spring. Providing some extra mulch or compost will help ensure their survival.
Pansies do well with fertilizer, so give them some compost or granular 20-10-20 fertilizer when you plant, then reapply one week later and gently work it into the soil without disturbing any roots. Repeat in early spring if the plants re-emerge or haven’t gone dormant.
There are many varieties of chrysanthemums out there in colors ranging from white to deep maroon. They bloom naturally in the fall, so if you have some planted in your perennial beds you’ll get consistent blooms every year to add some color when everything else starts to shut down and turn brown. Most people are more familiar with the large pots seen outside of nursery and grocery store this time of year instead.
Be aware that the large, flowering plants that you purchase in the fall will not survive through the winter in colder climates. Some, like the yellow daisy and painted daisy ‘mums, are true annuals and won’t even survive in warmer climates. Others are more picky. They do make great accents in the garden though, and I like to buy small, cheap pots and replace the nearly-dead petunias in our window boxes with more cheerful ‘mums. They might only last a month or two, but seeing some bright yellow blooms every day while the daylight hours get shorter makes it worth the $20 to me.
If you want to try overwintering them, good drainage is critical. Add some compost to your planting hole to help drain, and make sure they’re not in a low, non-draining spot in your garden. Don’t put rocks in the hole either — that actually keeps water around your plant (that’s another blog post in and of itself).
A lot of people aren’t aware that there’s a second, shorter growing season at the end of summer for select vegetables. Further north crops with a shorter time before harvest are best, whereas crops that take sixty or even ninety days can be grown further south.
Good cool-season crops are:
- Bok choy*
- Brussels sprouts
* Good for colder climates
- Mustard greens
- Swiss chard
Radishes are great cool-weather crops and can be planted as late as September in USDA zone 5b. They only take 30 days to mature.
There are entire branches of horticulture devoted to turfgrass, but to be honest, they don’t excite me very much. So this section is going to be like my lawn — a little thin.
Having said that, fall is usually the best time of year to plant a new lawn. The cool weather means fewer weeds, the grass gets two cool growing seasons without any hot weather in-between, and fall soils usually aren’t as wet as spring ones. You can seed over bare dirt, overseed on an exist lawn, or place sod at this time. Try to get things finished at least six weeks before any hard freezes, and remember that you’ll need to keep things watered for a while.
Trees & shrubs
Planting is fun, even in October! Give it a shot.
Fall is a great time of year to plant trees and shrubs. The temperatures are cool and there’s usually a fair amount of rain/moisture — these are things that will help a plant grow new roots and become established before the ground freezes. The cool temperatures also reduce shock to the plant and stop it from drying out too quickly.
Be careful not to plant too late in the season, though. If the ground freezes and the roots haven’t been able to grow, the plant runs a high risk of dying. Conifers need a little more time than other plants too, so try getting them in as soon as possible.
Once you’re done planting, be sure to add a decent layer of mulch to help insulate the roots and keep them from drying out.
Perennials really aren’t much different than trees and shrubs when it comes to fall planting. The rationale and methods are the same, although some perennials take to fall planting better than others. The easiest perennials to plant in the fall include hostas, peonies, and irises, but really, you can plant almost anything. Just make sure that you give your perennials enough drainage, because they’re going to have three wet seasons in a row. Make sure they’re mulched well to prevent frost heave, give them a drink of water every week until the ground freezes, and again, don’t wait too long before planting.
The best part about planting perennials in fall for me is the prices — so many nurseries want to clear their inventories rather than overwinter plants, so you can often find some really good deals.