Fall Gardening Tips

Why FALL Planting?

Experienced gardeners prefer fall
Experienced gardeners prefer fall

Experienced gardeners prefer fall planting. Not for all plants, but for a great many that the beginner seldom thinks of setting out except in spring.

Unless you are in a very cold section of the country, roses planted in fall take hold better than do spring-set bushes. So do most fruit trees and bushes, other deciduous trees and shrubs and many evergreens. The majority of hardy perennials, too, respond best when moved in autumn rather than in spring.

Fall planting is advantageous to the gardener too. Over most of North America spring is short, its days all too crowded.

Despite carefully made plans and the best intentions, it is usually physically impossible to accomplish all the planting and other work that needs doing. This is true if you do the work yourself; it is so if you hire professional help.

 In the mad rush of spring, skilled Gardeners and nurserymen seem to be almost as scarce as the proverbial hen’s tooth, and if you succeed in corralling one (or more), chances are he will be so rushed that your planting may be done less carefully than had you employed him at a more leisurely season.

But plantwise, why is fall the best time to set out most material? The first point to recognize is that the operation we call planting is actually transplanting. It consists of moving a living plant from one place to another in such a fashion that it will become reestablished.

Such transplanting is an artificial disturbance. In nature it occurs rarely, as when a tornado or swollen stream rips a plant from its anchorage and sets it some place else, where it takes root. But these are freak accidents. Plants usually spend their entire lives in the place where nature propagated them.

Transplanting is analogous to an operation on a human being. Parts of the body are cut away, the physiological processes disturbed. Common sense dictates that an operation should he done at a time most favorable to the patient, at the beginning of a period when recuperation is likely to take place most rapidly and when no undue demands are expected to be made upon the patient’s energies. For most plants, fall meets these conditions best.

Let’s examine the reasons why this is so. The above-ground parts of a plant depend upon the roots for water and nutrients, and to find them, roots often travel much greater distances than ordinarily supposed. A lowly perennial may send some of its feeders down 2, 3 or even more feet, and the spread of these feeders almost invariably far exceeds that of the foliage. In the case of trees and shrubs, too, the underground parts usually occupy more space then the stems and leaves.

It follows that no matter how carefully transplanting is done, some roots are cut off and the plant’s ability to supply its stems and leaves with water and nutrients is temporarily reduced. In fall, with its shorter days, lower temperatures, less intense sunshine and in many cases normal loss of foliage, the demands for water and nutrients made by the tops of hardy plants are at a near minimum and decrease as day follows day. This is a significant factor.

Roots of fall transplants are able to continue growth long after top growth has ceased, because the ground beneath remains warm and moist even after the upper inch or two is frozen. Therefore, new roots, generate readily from the cut and broken ends of transplants, enabling them to rapidly re-establish their root systems.

Contrast this with conditions that prevail in spring. Then all factors that favor vigorous top growth (with its resulting heavier demands upon the roots) are at work. Days are lengthening, the sun strengthening. Winds are stealing water from every stem and leaf. And as the leaves increase in size and number, the demand for water and nutrients increases correspondingly.

Are there any disadvantages to fall planting? Yes, in some cases there’s danger of winterkilling. Winter is the crucial period for plants on the border-line of hardiness in any given locality, plants which are so close to being tender and winterkilled anyway that the root disturbance tips the balance against them.

For such plants spring transplanting is safer, because in order to survive the winter, these borderline plants need a fully established root system. Planted in spring, they have a whole growing season in which to re-root before being called upon to face the rigors of winter.

Transplanting done too late for the particular plant type may also result in winterkilling. In such cases there simply is not sufficient time for adequate rooting before the under soil becomes too cold.

Then, too, heaving (soil movement due to alternate freezing and thawing) can tear and break roots, and with smallish items, such as rock garden plants and perennials, this may cause so much damage that serious harm or death results. However, precautions can be taken to minimize this danger.

On the negative side, one other factor must be taken into account. Experience has proved that a few plants transplant better in spring (preferably late spring) than in fall. These include some subjects with more or less fleshy roots, such as magnolias and beeches. If you have any doubts about a particular plant, check with an experienced gardener.

The actual operation of transplanting is the same whether done in fall or spring. Only the details of after care differ. Regardless of season, the soil must be deeply and thoroughly prepared and should be in a crumbly rather than pasty condition.

Preparation ordinarily involves loosening the earth to a depth of 10 inches or more, mixing in a generous amount of organic matter (compost, leafmold, rotted manure, peatmoss or commercial humus) and some fertilizer.

In fall, use only slowly available fertilizers such as coarse bonemeal, pulverized sheep manure or prepared mixtures that have much of their nitrogen content in organic form. The quickly soluble, rapid-acting kinds are more advantageous in spring, for these serve chiefly to stimulate leaf growth, which is not of immediate importance in fall. For certain plants, some soils will need liming. And in some cases, the use of a synthetic soil conditioner may be advisable.

The details of preparing the soil depend upon the particular plants to be set out. In any case, see that the preparation is thorough and, if possible, have it completed well in advance of planting. This gives the earth time to settle somewhat and makes firm planting at the right depth easier.

If you must plant before the soil has settled sufficiently by itself, either tread it until moderately firm (while it is dry enough not to stick to the shoes) or give it a thorough soaking with the hose and then allow it to dry. Either treatment will settle it enough for planting.

The old admonition that it’s better to put a 10-cent plant in a dollar hole than a dollar plant in a 10-cent hole still holds. For every plant you install, make a hole sufficiently large to easily accommodate the ball of roots without crowding and to permit you to pack a liberal amount of good soil around the old roots to encourage growth of new ones.

This is especially important with trees, shrubs and evergreens planted where the entire surrounding soil is not specially prepared, as it usually is with herbaceous plants and closely set shrubs. For a moderate-sized shrub or tree, the role should be at least 2 feet wider than the spread of the roots… more if the soil is poorand more when big specimens are being moved.

One of the great advantages of fall planting is that purchased nursery stock is then newly dug. It has not been wintered in a nursery cellar or storage shed as have most spring-sold plants.

Take care when planting not to let the roots become dry. If the specimens are moved with a ball of soil, as evergreens always should be and larger trees and shrubs often are, be sure, not to break it.

Spread the roots of plants that are moved without a soil ball in the directions in which they run naturally and work good soil between them. Set the plants at the same depth or only very slightly deeper than they were previously. Firm the soil well, but do not ram it until it is as hard as a road. Unless rain is imminent, soak the soil immediately after planting and keep well watered.

Secure fall-planted trees firmly to stakes or guy wires to prevent winter storms from loosening or toppling them over. Deciduous shrubs rarely need staking, but it is often good to prune back or thin out some of the branches. Evergreens (both shrubs and trees) will appreciate a burlap screen if they are exposed to wind or strong winter sun.

Very important, too, is the subject of winter protection. For most plants, a mulch 1 or 2 inches deep (3 or 4 inches for evergreens) spread over the ground after it has frozen will delay frost penetration to greater depths and enable roots to grow for a longer period. A mulch will also reduce heaving.

Suitable materials are coarse compost, half-rotted leaves, manure, straw and peat-moss. A mulch of this type, however, is not practicable for ground-hugging plants such as strawberries and many rock garden subjects, which require a light covering of salt hay or evergreen branches. Perennials, too, prefer the latter type mulch.

Roses require a little different kind of winter protection. After the top inch of earth has frozen, bill the soil high around the bases of the stems to protect the lower buds, and fill the hollows between the hills with loose manure or some other mulch material.

Let’s take a look now at the best fall planting times for the different plant types. Evergreens should go in first. These have to support a crop of leaves all winter and so need plenty of time to develop ample roots. Deciduous trees and shrubs, excepting those few kinds that move better in spring, may be safely planted considerably later than evergreens. Put them in any time between the start of natural leaf fall and the first hard ground freeze.

Roses should be planted as soon as obtainable, and planting may continue until frost makes it impracticable. Perennials and biennials should be planted as soon as possible after the first killing frost to enable them to root well before the soil freezes.

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