Getting garden right

Fall conditions make this a great time to work on your dream yard

September 24, 2006|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,[ Special to the sun ]

In spring, gardeners act like kids in a candy store, greedily stuffing everything they can get their hands on into the ground. Then the annual drought kicks in. For the rest of the summer they pay for their botanical gluttony with back pain and water bills, hauling around hoses in an effort to keep the cache alive. All this when the truth is: Fall is a better time to plant in Maryland. One reason is that by September the rains have returned.

"We usually have decent moisture then," says Mike Cunningham, owner of Ace Nursery and Tree Movers in Gaithersburg.

Yet it's not just rain that makes fall a kinder, gentler time for planting. In spring the soil is cold and often sodden, a combination that can shock, stunt or even rot young roots. But the warm ground in autumn encourages subterranean growth.

"In fall, you pop something in the ground and the roots take off," says Ellen Nibali, horticultural consultant for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

And since plants aren't burdened with producing top growth and bloom, they can devote all their energy to building sturdy root systems that voraciously slurp up water and nutrients. So by the time they're called on to leaf out and bloom several months hence, they've built up substantial reserves on which to draw. The visible result: Plants are larger, lusher and less susceptible to drought than their spring-planted counterparts.

"They also tend to bloom earlier," notes Nibali.

Some things will perform well only if they're planted in fall, for example, early flowering perennials such as hellebore, peony and Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale). And the cool-weather bulbs, corms and rhizomes -- daffodils, tulips, Bearded Iris, Allium, crocus and others -- won't bloom reliably unless planted in fall.

"They need about 12 weeks of 40 degrees or so to develop roots systems [before they bloom]," says Jay Hutchins, general manager of Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, Va. "They also take in much more food in fall than in spring."

But fall planting is not just easier on plants; it's also easier on gardeners. Reprieved from summer's Sahara heat, they emerge from the air conditioning into balmy autumn, ready for a little garden restoration, a horticultural mini-makeover that benefits both the soul and the neighborhood.

"You can spruce up your garden in fall with fall-bloomers like pansies and mums," says Kelly Williams, manager of Kingsdene Garden Center in Monkton.

Fall planting is easier on the wallet, too, since most garden centers discount summer-blooming perennials, shrubs and trees at the end of the season. "We have roses at 50 percent off," Williams says. "And many of our perennials are 25 percent off."

Two exceptions to fall planting are fruit trees and evergreens, which only get planted in spring. Fruit trees need their leaves to manufacture carbohydrates all summer, building resources to get through winter. And evergreens, unlike bare-limbed deciduous trees, transpire year round, losing moisture through leaves and needles that the cold, sometimes-frozen ground prevents them from replacing adequately, especially when they are young and have shallow roots. For all tree planting, Cunningham recommends using root-stimulating hormones, available at garden centers.

FALL PLANTING TIPS

* Take stock while the details of this year's garden are still fresh in your mind. Consider where you need fall color, winter interest, spring bloom and foliage.

* Before buying, pull bargain plants out of their pots to inspect roots. They should be creamy and healthy-looking though pot bound. Avoid plants with shriveled roots, soft, rotting cores, lots of dead stems or shrubs with deadwood that starts at the core.

* To plant, clip off roots reaching out of pots. Loosen bound roots or slice them a little apart starting at the bottom to about one-third of the way up so they will spread out once planted. * Position winter interest plants where you can enjoy them from inside as well as outside of the house. * Fertilize bulbs in fall. Spring feedings are far less effective.

* Make sure the newly planted get steady water -- for perennials, generally an inch a week. For shrubs and trees, lay a hose against the trunk and turn it on to a steady trickle for an hour or two. Repeat every four days depending on rains.

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