As the days shorten, and many gardening activities start to slow down, it’s easy to think that additions to your landscaping and gardening should be put on hold until next spring. If you do that, you’ll miss out on some of the greatest and most beneficial seasonal conditions to improve your yardscape. I know — by now you’re probably tired of mowing the lawn, trimming bushes, and maybe you’ve got more veggies than what you know what to do with (if so, may I suggest planting less of the same thing and practice more diversity next year?), so you are looking forward to this season winding down. However, if you put in just a bit more effort with some of the foundational plantings of trees and bushes, it will be worth it, I promise.
One great reason to become a fall planter is economics — prices are much lower, as the nurseries are clearing out their inventory. Unfortunately, the average consumer doesn’t have the foresight to imagine what the plant will look like next spring and will buy only items in full bloom or actively sprouting. When plants stay potted in the nursery throughout the season, they will naturally slow down their blooming or fruiting, and start to show maturity on their stems and bark. That’s not good for typical retail sales. However, you being wise enough to purchase outside of the typical buying season pays off for both the seller and for you. The nursery isn’t especially fond of overwintering stock and protecting it from drying out (this is known as desiccation), or assuring the root system doesn’t freeze to a point that the plant or tree dies (potted plants are much more prone to freeze damage than plants that are nestled in the soil). So, they are usually willing to sell remaining stock at significantly lower prices. Buying all of your garden selections late in the season is probably not the way to go, simply because the selection is limited, and you will have to choose from what’s left in the nursery. Even so, there are many great finds to be had right here in the Tooele Valley and from other nurseries along the Wasatch Front. I recently came home with a 3-inch caliper ornamental pear tree, and two one and one-half inch caliber Chokecherry trees for $65. At an average of around $22 per tree for nice stock in 15 gallon pots, that is hard to beat.
To help you envision what the plant or tree will look like when it is mature, you might want to pick up a copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book and look up the cultivar (cultivated variety). This will help you catch the vision of what your new planting will look like once its established in your yardscape, including its height, width, foliage shape and color along with bloom shapes, colors and timing, and its appearance in late fall and winter. By “seeing” what the plant will be, instead of what it currently is in its temporary home, you can make some great additions to your outdoor living space and perhaps pick up some treasures that have been overlooked by others.
Besides some great prices, there are also benefits to the plants themselves. By planting in the fall, you give your plant longer to establish itself with very little effort from you. Planting later in the season is easier on you, as it’s typically cooler. It’s also less stressful on the plant since it doesn’t need to deal with the heat while getting settled, and the winter months give your new plant time to acclimate to its new home. Water it in well and keep the planting moist until the temperatures drop — somewhere around Halloween. Roots typically form more rapidly during cooler weather, so by planting in the fall, your tree will have two seasons (the fall season you plant in as well as the next spring) to establish roots before being called upon to go to work supplying nutrients and moisture to newly forming stems, leaves and buds.
When planting, should you heavily amend the soil or use large planting holes with a lot of enrichments? Research shows that over time, it really doesn’t help the plant to dig large holes or put a lot of extra material in the planting hole. In fact, this can lead to the plant forming a circular root pattern as roots take the path of least resistance. This also makes the planting prone to wind damage and creates a need for staking. As you might expect, there’s a diversity of opinion on planting approaches, all the way from simply digging a very small hole, placing the plant and backfilling, to essentially removing all native soil from a large planting hole and putting in planting mix. I recommend a moderate-sized planting hole, approximately two to three times the size of the root ball, and using the native soil with only a light amending of organic material to backfill. My strategy is to give the plant good anchorage because of minimally disturbed soil, a bit of assist with mild soil enrichment to stimulate root growth and then allow the plant to get established and start to root out into the native soil. I roughen the sides of the planting hole to allow the root hairs to more easily grasp and penetrate the adjacent earth. Then create a depression around the plant to capture both irrigation and rainfall. Mulch well to suppress weeds, reduce temperature during hotter months, and to retain moisture.
A word of caution: When planting in the fall, avoid fertilizing — this will force new growth to appear, just in time for it to be frozen when winter comes. Trees and shrubs need time to harden off growth as the days become increasingly shorter and the average temperatures drop. Fertilizing late in the season stimulates top growth at precisely the wrong time and keeps sap moving through the branches where it is susceptible to freeze-thaw cycles with the transition from fall to winter. This is really hard on the plant tissues and will make your new friend much more likely to suffer from winter kill. Instead, apply moderate fertilization next spring, when the shrub or tree can benefit the most.
While looking for off-season bargains — be kind to our nurserymen and women. They are a great resource both in expertise and selection of plants, trees, shrubs and veggies. Enthusiastically support them in the spring season as well as become a prudent fall shopper. It just makes good sense. Both you and they will feel better when those great plants and trees get a great home — yours.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.