by Rick Vuyst
Your neighbors with the nicest yards and gardens are those who invest time to improve them in the months of September to November. If you own a home it most likely didn’t come with an owner’s manual. Landowner spelled phonetically is “land-oh-ner” although horticultural challenged types would pronounce it “land-oh-no” as they ponder where to start.
A great place to start is with some fall planting. Fall is no time to throw in the “trowel”. It is a window of opportunity that comes along once a year. The perfect time to plant, move existing plants or in the case of perennials, split your plants!
Fall is the third act in a four season drama, and for some, the most spectacular of seasons. A kaleidoscope of color and a last hurrah before dormancy drops the curtain and ushers in the final act with the arrival of winter. Fortunately dormancy is a reversible stage, providing anticipation and suspense for the arrival of spring. Until then, senses are heightened in fall with vivid colors, distinctive aromas or tastes and the sights and sounds of leaves fluttering in the breeze. The trees provide a carpet of nutrient rich organics, investing in the earth to feed future generations of growth.
Another reason fall is for planting? You can pick up lots of bargains on plant material in October. As Donna Summer said, you work “yard” for the money…..and fall is the time to save. Besides, there’s always room for more jello and plants. I’m always pulling up more sod to put another new plant in the ground. Like a kid in a candy store, especially when it involves spending money on a plant bargain and a new plant. I guess that’s why they ask what’s the difference between a gardener and a mutual fund? The answer is one actually matures after 20 years and makes money. I get my “green thumb” from digging in my wallet, unable to resist the next exciting plant.
Many landscape plants put on a spectacular show in fall. Woody deciduous landscape shrubs like Viburnum, Itea, Oakleaf Hydrangea or Fothergilla light up the landscape with color. Witch Hazel started the drama back in spring with its unusual yellow blooms in March. It saves the best for last with a fantastic foliage collage of orange, yellow and red all on the same plant. Autumn Crocus or Colchicum get in on the act with crocus-like blooms in fall. Also known as “naked ladies” these beauties bloom in fall void of foliage. The foliage waits to appear the following spring. Ornamental grasses add interest to the landscape well into winter with a harvest of dramatic inflorescence dancing in the breeze. Fruit and berries add to the color from the rose hips of Rosa Rugosa to the bird “berry-liscious” fruit of Crabapples,Viburnum and the stunning color of Coralberry with a botanical name that says it all…. Symphoricarpos orbiculatus. Today’s new generation of own root landscape shrub Roses like ‘Knockout’ put on a show in fall, many blooming all the way to Thanksgiving. Roses take a while to naturally shut down for winter and some don’t exit stage left until mid to late November!
Fall is a time to “grow” with the flow. Food reserves manufactured by the foliage are being transferred to the roots. The plant isn’t spending like it does in spring on top growth. The plant is investing in its “hortfolio” and root establishment for future growth. Even though air temperatures have dropped, the soil remains warm enough for root activity well into early winter. Your investment will grow because fall planted landscape plants have a big jump start on spring planted material.
Plants put in the ground in the fall are given a period of rest or dormancy with the winter season. Comparatively, plants put in the ground in spring face the stressful heat and drought of the summer season. Even some flowering annuals can benefit from fall planting. Fall planted pansies for example provide frost tolerant color in the fall season and can overwinter below the cover of snow. The following spring they quickly brighten a winter weary landscape on sunny days. Fall investments in bulbs like deer resistant Daffodils, Dutch Iris, Fritillaria or Alliums provide the opportunity to say “not tonight deer” and color your landscape. Next spring you’ll be glad you took a little time this fall because it’s as easy as dig, drop, done.
If you’re interested in converting some areas of turf into rich garden soil without the hard work of digging up sod you can do so easily with some newspaper, leaves and soil or using my black plastic approach. The first method is a form of “lasagna” gardening. Your first layer is newspaper 2 to 4 pages thick on the turf area you wish to convert to garden. I suggest picking a calm day or you’ll be chasing the sports section through your neighborhood. Keep a garden hose handy and wet down the newspaper once placed on the grass. Avoid the color print ads and stick with the black and white print. Next rake up leaves and place them on the newspaper. This is the second organic layer of your green thumb lasagna. Again a calm day or soaking the leaves helps hold them in place until you put soil on top of the leaves, your third and final layer. Once the third soil layer is in place, you can allow the “lasagna” to cook all winter long. The grass will suffocate below the newspaper and next spring you can till the layers into a rich organic planting medium without having to dig up sod. The second method involves some “undercover” intelligence and black plastic. Take black plastic and pin it down with landscape pins. The grass will cook below the plastic for a few weeks. When leaves fall from the trees, you can pull up the black plastic and cover the now dead grass with leaves. Rotor-till the leaves in and you have a great new planting bed.
Take advantage of the fall planting season window of opportunity before it closes. The fall window is “pane”-less and open now.