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Fall Planting

Contributed by Lyssa Peters, Master Gardener


At the end of August, I always wish I could turn the clock back a month. One more summer month would be so wonderful. Two would be even better but I know I’m not getting that wish unless I move south, and then I’d be in the South! I try to convince myself that September is summer, too. AND IT IS! But the days are getting shorter, the evenings are much cooler, and all the “fall stuff” is starting. People just don’t treat September like summer.


In my garden, however, summer is in full swing; there is lots to be done. Gardening season is not over by a long shot. Late summer and early fall are a great time for new plantings. The cooler weather is gentler on new transplants, and on gardeners, too! After that broiling, dry August, I can’t wait to get out and do some garden chores (besides watering!).


At the garden centers, everything is on sale. If you choose carefully, you can get some terrific bargains this time of year on perennials and shrubs. I tend to avoid the garden shops at the “big box” stores. The plants are not taken care of properly during the summer season. They are usually showing signs of distress by this time of year and will probably not perform well in your garden. I have “rescued” sad looking plants in the past, and they take a long time to recover if they do at all (not to mention that by this time in the season they have often lost that all-important tag telling the plant name and variety). So, especially at this time of year, go to a reliable garden center for new plants. Next, look your new plant over carefully before purchase. If you are buying perennials, notice the overall condition of the plant. Is it healthy and green? If the leaves look brown and crisp on the edges, the plant has not been watered regularly and chances are the roots have been affected as well. Pass that plant by.


Ask questions before you buy. Is this a plant that does well in our area? How big will it get? Does in need full sun or partial shade? Will it spread too quickly? How long is its bloom time? It is always fun to try something new, but know what you are buying. Late summer is actually a GREAT time to plant trees and shrubs. Container grown shrubs, which is what you’ll see most often, should be planted before October 1st so the roots have some time to grow before the ground freezes. Then your new tree or shrub has three seasons to settle in before another dry, hot summer comes. The hard part may be finding a healthy plant that has not been sitting in a pot on hot pavement all summer with barely enough water. Again, go to a reliable garden center and choose carefully. Look for lush, green growth. A plant that is healthy, looks healthy!


Container-grown plants can easily become pot bound by this time of year. Their roots are coiled around each other in the limited space of the pot, and you should avoid plants where you can see roots circling on the surface and coming out of the drainage holes. For moderately pot bound shrubs, the solution is to split the lower half of the roots with a sharp spade and spread the roots horizontally. This practice will prune the roots, encouraging new growth, and bring the lower roots closer to the soil surface.


I’ve heard conflicting advice on planting holes. One school of thought suggests improving the soil in the hole around your new shrub’s roots by adding organic matter. Although that method is critical when planting perennials, for shrubs it is better to dig a hole as deep as the split root ball, but twice as wide, loosen the soil around the root ball, but do not amend it. The reason being that if your planting hole has great soil, and the surrounding soil is not as good, the shrub will treat your planting hole as a container and not grow into surrounding soil. Makes sense to me. A better approach is to choose a plant appropriate to your soil type, and it will thrive happily there for years!


Make sure you do not plant your shrub any deeper than it was in the pot. The trunk or stem has to breathe. Likewise, when you spread your mulch, do not spread it right up to the stem. Leave at least 6 inches. Putting the mulch right up to the trunks of trees is a common mistake. Tree guys call these “mulch volcanoes.” I see them everywhere! Water, water, water! Make sure your new plant gets off to a good start. Long drinks once a week are better that daily sprinkles. You might want to make a ring of soil 2-3 inches high on the outside edges of your planting hole to hold water, but make sure you remove it before winter. You don’t want an ice ring around your new plant! While you’re at the garden center, get yourself some spring flowering daffodils and grape hyacinths. You'll be glad you did when spring arrives.


Happy late-summer gardening!


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