Late autumn in the park
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Now that you’re away from the task of raking leaves or chopping perennials, you have time to take on other projects. Fall is the best time to plant bulbs, perennials, shrubs and trees. There are some exceptions, but for the most part, if you can plant now, rather than in the spring, your garden will reward you. In the fall, the need for water is less, and by the heat of summer, the plants have time to settle down and develop a strong root system.
October to December is the planting season for bulbs. Before the soil goes into a deep freeze, you can place daffodils, tulips and alliums with abandon. Wait for the bulbs to die in November or even December and plant them for yourself or others as a Christmas gift. In the spring, when they emerged from the thawed earth, it seemed almost like a surprise, on the cold November afternoon, they went to earth like a distant memory.
Fall is also the best time to plant or transplant perennials. Watering needs are low as temperatures drop and plants prepare to go dormant. When spring comes, those plants planted in the fall will bloom. An important exception: You usually don’t want to move the plant while it’s flowering. Flowering plants put a lot of energy into their flowers. Asking a plant to recover from movement at the same time as it is in the midst of fulfilling its reproductive destiny is a big ask.
If you have to move a plant while it’s flowering, you can improve its chances by keeping it well watered or by cutting off all the flowers and buds – heresy, I know! However, it will make moving easier on the plant and provide a beautiful bouquet for your kitchen table. In general, the rule of thumb is to plant spring-flowering plants in the fall and fall-flowering plants in the spring.
Another benefit of planting in the fall is that you’ve just spent a summer in your garden—you’ve walked your paths, looked at your beds, moved your pots, and admired the view from your windows—and you have a finely honed sense of what works and what doesn’t. That big tree peony at the front of the bed? It will look better at the back. Do your hardy geraniums get lost (and shaded) in the middle? It’s time for them to take their place front and center.
Despite all the talk of looking forward to spring, there is still some color to be squeezed from the shortening days. You can replace summer annuals — those that turn into mulch — in high-visibility places like window boxes and planters with bright, cheerful pansies. Called Johnny Jump Ups, violas are smaller and tend to bloom more reliably and lively than their larger cousins. Small evergreen shrubs, heucheras, sedges, and sweet flags also make beautiful seasonal plantings. Container plants are winter hardy and many can be transplanted into the garden in the spring.
So, if I impart one piece of wisdom here, it’s that fall gardening is what benefits you. Do a lot. Do a little. Take a break. Get a spring vision board. Just make sure to soak up all the sunny afternoons. They won’t last forever.