Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Fall Gardening To-Do List

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture

Fall is a great time of year to evaluate the space needs of plants in your garden. If you are at all like me, each spring I think I have a lot more space than I actually have. I end up overcrowding my beds and sooner or later something has to be removed or relocated

Take some pictures of your garden this fall. You will be glad you did in January when the first spring garden catalogs fill your mailbox. It will be easy to decide if you really have the room you think you do for new plants. I am notorious for having eyes bigger than my garden, and having pictures on hand does provide a reality check.

Also consider what your garden looks like this time of year. Is everything looking tired and worn out by the summer sun? Consider adding some plants that bloom in the later summer and early fall. Just a couple of fresh new blooms can liven up the whole garden. Some of my favorites are Caryopteris, Aster, Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium), Sneezeweed (Helenium), Sedum, Group 3 (late flowering) Clematis, and Balloon Flower (Platycodon). These are just a few suggestions-- there are many more choices out there.

You may find in evaluating your garden this fall that some plants need to be moved. When relocating perennials in the garden, dig the plant out with a large root ball trying not to damage adjacent plants. Keeping as many roots intact as possible will help the plant re-establish itself in its new location faster. If you are dividing plants, try to keep as much roots with each division as possible. Again, more roots will help the divisions establish themselves quicker in their new homes in the garden.

The key in getting fall planted perennials to survive the winter is timing and mulch. The plant's roots need to grow and establish sufficiently before winter sets in. Though the ground doesn't typically freeze in this area until December or January, the cold temperatures slow plant growth, including roots. A little extra mulch for the winter, applied in late October or November will help protect brand new or relocated plants. Just be sure to remove any mulch covering new shoots in the spring.

The safest advice to follow is to plant your perennials no later than September. That way, temperatures are still warm enough to promote good root growth before cold weather hits. That said, I am currently in the midst of violating my own advice. My August and September were just way too busy, and I got behind on things I wanted to do in the garden.

One of the things on my "to do" list was dividing German, or bearded iris. When my landscape was barren and new, I eagerly planted all the free iris that my gardening friends offered me by the bagful. Now I've lived to regret it.

The iris I planted grew and flourished, rapidly filling what little space I left between them. Technically, iris experts say to divide bearded iris every three to four years in July and August— mine have been in the ground for 5 growing seasons, and here it is October already, so I'm definitely breaking the "rules".

I separated the tangled mass of rhizomes into new starts, each with a single fan of leaves and a small rhizome with roots attached. I saved some to replant, and the rest will reappear at our Master Gardener plant sale on May 1, 2010.

In the midst of all my iris digging, I decided to reposition some daylilies. Again, it is a little late in the year to be doing this, but bearded iris and daylilies are some of the hardiest plants for gardens. These are plants that will thrive on neglect and abuse.

There are more plants I want to rearrange in my garden that will have to wait until spring. Plants that are particularly delicate or difficult to transplant are better left for transplanting in the spring before new growth is fully expanded. One example is false indigo, Baptisia australis. It has a deep tap root and so is difficult to transplant. I desperately want to move mine, but all sources I've read suggest waiting until spring.

One way to lessen the shock when moving established plants in the garden is to root prune a season or two before moving the plant. To root prune, insert a sharp spade into the ground forming a circle around the plant, outlining as large a root ball as you can reasonably handle. Doing this in the fall severs a lot of the longer roots. The plant has several months to recover and adjust to a smaller rootball before being transplanted in the spring.

It's really not necessary to fertilize fall planted perennials. That said, many people will still feel like they must fertilize fall planted perennials. If adding fertilizer will make you feel better, stick to fertilizers containing only phosphorus and potassium, to encourage good root growth. Nitrogen fertilizers will encourage leaf growth, and what is more important in the fall is good root growth to sustain the plant through the winter. Frosts will come all too soon and nip those leaves anyway.

A gardener's work is never done, but try and find a moment or two to sit back and enjoy your hard work this fall before the snow flies. Far too often we are so absorbed in what we need to do that we fail to see what we have done.

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