The gardening year really has two planting seasons, spring and fall.
Spring planting season is all a-rush with excitement because you can finally get your hands in the dirt, carefully chosen plants are arriving and a casual browse through the local nurseries has sent you home with a truckload of new plants and plans. And then there is the bliss of working beneath an ever warmer and brighter sun.
Fall planting season tends to be less exuberant, with thoughts arising as perennials are cut back, and dead annuals pulled out and tossed on the compost pile. Some plants will need to be divided which means new locations in the planting scheme of things. Some locations will demand an entirely new plant. It’s time to make a final pass through the local nursery to see what might be on season-end sale. Nursery plants at this time of the year may not look as vital and lush as they did in the spring, but that does not mean that once their roots are loosened and in the ground they will not revive and greet the new spring with great energy and beauty.
Fall planting is always at least a small part of fall clean-up because generally speaking, perennials need dividing every three or four years. Dividing a perennial clump gives you a chance to pull out any weeds that have inveigled their way in, and to think about potential new sites for the plant. It also gives you a chance to think about who else might enjoy or benefit from the divisions.
Years ago I interviewed a wonderful woman who had a special holding bed for divisions. Then, whenever someone admired her garden or a specific plant, she could take them to that bed and send them away with a generously sized healthy plant. Having a holding bed for some divisions means you won’t have to disturb your own garden when the generous impulse hits – as it inevitably does.
I don’t have a permanent holding bed even though I keep promising myself that I will make one, but I have planted fall divisions in an empty vegetable bed. In the spring I dig them, and pot them up for the Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale. Recently I read that divisions that go directly into pots and then sunk in the garden for the winter, do even better when they are unpotted in a new garden. I am going to try that.
Of course planting techniques are no different spring or fall. If you are planting a pot bound nursery plant, make sure that you loosen all the roots. You do not need to be gentle. You can even drag a cultivator claw through the root ball. Those disturbed roots will finally be able to breathe and grow new roots that can reach into new soil.
The planting hole should be generous with a good helping of compost added. Planting and transplanting are always opportunities to enrich the soil. Make sure the roots are spread out and that they are situated so that the plant is neither too deep, or too high above the soil level. Then give a soaking watering. One of the advantages of fall planting is the gentler sun, cooler temperatures and adequate rainfall.
If the rains do not arrive, as we all know they should, keep any new plant well watered until winter temperatures begin to freeze the ground.
Fall is an excellent time to plant container grown or balled-and-burlapped trees and shrubs. You might find a bargain at the nursery, but make sure to loosen the burlap. Some trees will come with wire to hold the roots together. This heavy wire will strangle the roots and kill the plant. Make sure to remove wire if it is present.
Soil temperatures at this season are warmer than in the spring, and soil is apt to be less waterlogged making it easier for roots to grow into their new home. A young tree with thin bark will benefit from having its trunk wrapped once the ground freezes. That wrapping will need to be removed in March.
Mulch can be applied to any plant once the ground is frozen. This will help prevent freezing, thawing and heaving.
With a little luck vegetable gardens can still be producing cool weather crops like kale, Brussels spouts and beets, but October is also time to plant garlic in the vegetable garden. I chose the eight biggest bulbs from this year’s crop to plant before the end of the month.
I enjoy cleaning out the planting bed, adding some compost and then planting single big cloves about four inches deep, and eight inches apart. Then I mulch well using a deep layer of straw. It is a happy day in the spring when those grassy garlic shoots make their way through the mulch.
Spring blooming bulbs can be planted all through October. What would you choose, early bloomers like snowdrops and scillas or sunny daffodils? All of these will multiply wonderfully year after year. For me the easiest way to plant bulbs is to dig a hole that will accommodate several bulbs for a good clump.
An afternoon spent under the autumnal sun with a bag of bulbs and bulb fertilizer will give you years of early spring pleasure.
Between the Rows October 1, 2011