The Perennial Buzz: Autumn can be a perfect time to plant more

Published 9:00 am Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Perennial Buzz by Shelley Pederson

Shelley Pederson is a perennially busy master gardener, lover of nature and student of life.

Mums, pumpkins, cool nights and full moons … the onset of fall. For me, this is bargain time. I love to go to garden centers and look for perennials, shrubs and trees that are too good of a deal to pass up. Fall is one of the best times to plant, and I’ve been known to plant bulbs as late as Thanksgiving weekend. I certainly plant all through September and October.

Email newsletter signup

What do you need to look for buying plants in the fall? First, don’t be surprised if plants do not look pristine. Even in the pot, they are beginning to go dormant. I suggest popping the plant out of the pot and look at the roots. The roots should have some white to them. If they are solid brown or worse, smell moldy, then the plant may be too far gone to establish. Most potted plants are going to be very root bound. This doesn’t scare me. If there is some vitality left in the roots, simply and gently roll the root ball or use your fingers to open it up a bit. Some people use a knife to cut through larger root balls. The important thing is that the root ball is opened up to allow new root growth horizontally and vertically.

Prepare the soil before planting by adding any amendments needed in your soil. I like to use a mix of worm castings, bone meal and maybe a little (not much) potash in the fall. Nitrogen is needed for leaf growth, and in the fall, I want root growth. Bone meal is a great addition for blooming plants and bulbs, as it slowly breaks down and helps set the plant up for spring blooms. Any of you who know me, know that I feel worm castings are the single most excellent thing you can put in your garden. I love the stuff and will dedicate an article about it. The mix I use is roughly four parts bone meal, four parts worm castings and one scant part potash. I add about a half cup of this mix to perennials and bulbs, a couple cups for a shrub and four to six cups for a tree.

Sometimes I’m able to find organic style fertilizers on clearance. These types of fertilizers have lower numbers, say 4-5-4 compared to chemical fertilizers at 10-10-10. Remember, the slow-release organic style fertilizers stay in your soil, and are available to the plant for years.

Chemical fertilizers are like eating a Snickers, you feel good and have a little energy when needed. Slow release are like steak and potatoes, they stick to your ribs and last. Because there is a slow release nitrogen in these formulas only use about half the recommended amount in the fall. Keep the unused fertilizer dry and cool.

Fall watering is the key to having the roots go down below the frost line before winter grips. I fill the hole with water before planting, water the plant again after planting, and soak the area around the plant. After the initial watering, I water infrequently, but deeply. Keep a close eye on the plant, and if it begins to show stress simply give it another deep soak. The goal here is to starve the roots a bit and force them to break deep into the soil in search of water below the frost line. Water one or two times the first couple weeks and after that maybe once a week all of October and November if dry. Even after a frost, the roots are still growing. For trees and shrubs, I slow soak them about 20 to 30 minutes. I give perennials about a gallon of water soaking them well.

If you’ve been thinking about that fragrant lilac, stunning magnolia or a patch of bee-loving plants, go ahead, there is still time to plant.