For so many years, gardeners have been trained to plant in the spring season. On some deeply held level, it is our instinct to do so, maybe because we are excited to get out after the winter and get to work, but in reality, the early fall is an ideal time for planting – and often coincides with plant sales at nurseries of both perennials and woody plants. So why not forgo the seasonal mums and ornamental kales and cabbages that fill the empty spaces in the garden for the remainder of the season and spend that money on something that gives you a better long-term return? Or if you are feeling flush, do both and work a few perennials into the border between those cabbages and mums.
It may seem counterintuitive to be putting plants into the garden as things are winding down for the season, but newly planted perennials and shrubs are primed for getting acclimated to the garden at this time. Spring-blooming perennials and shrubs are not putting any energy into flower production, nor are they typically pushing up new foliar growth, so most of the energy they continue to collect through photosynthesis is going right where we want it — into long-term investment in their root systems. I like to think of it as their infrastructure investment. As the season cools and the energy from their foliar growth is sent below the soil line, these plants are storing up the carbohydrates and nutrients needed to push forth in a healthy manner next spring. They are not fighting off the drain of excessive heat or the usurpation of their energy production by floral or foliar growth, they are just getting settled in for a long winter’s rest – just like most gardeners I know. Even plants that bloom later in the season have done most of their work in producing flowers and foliage and will also send their energy resources belowground in the weeks to come.
I used to be nervous about fall planting, questioning whether the plants I was putting in would be there next spring or if the winter be too hard on them. I was even more surprised to discover, when I was working on a book on seed saving, that the plants most likely to overwinter well were not the mature perennials or biennials that I put in early in the season, but those that were planted later in the season, and at a smaller size. Apparently, youth prevails, and these young plants have vigor on their side –the same may be true of younger gardeners, but I can’t slow down the aging process and will just need to make sure I have all of the self-care I need to make it to next season. To continue with this metaphor, I will continue by sharing my mother’s instinct for covering a sleeping baby to protect it from fluctuating temperatures. A layer of mulch will help keep the plants from suffering frost heave – the lifting of plants from the soil as the temperatures create cycle of freezing and thawing that cause the earth to push up.
Another reason that I have come to love fall planting is that I have more time to get things into the ground than in the onslaught of growth that is spring. Additionally, I have a season’s worth of memories of what areas might need some reworking. (For an older gardener like me, I may not remember by next spring.) I also find that in the spring, when I head to the nursery, I tend to plant the things that are in or near bloom, which leaves the garden with a seasonal bias to May, June or perhaps, if I am thinking longer term, July, flowering cycles. When I look at the garden now, I see places for fall-blooming asters and anemones, Russian sage and mountain mints, and even a few mums, but perhaps of the perennial variety.
With this in mind, I am excited to weed a few areas and find a home for a few more plants in my garden. And when fall raking provides me with a pile of leaves, I will shred them and place them around my new plantings to provide the young plants with an added layer of insulation from the vicissitudes of winter.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.