Fall planting – What, what? Yes, there are plants that can be planted in the fall. Just when you think the season is over as the annuals start to look poorly, the leaves start to fall, and the temperatures start to drop, it is time to move the old plants over to make room for the cold season crop. Just as in crop farming, fall can be a busy time for the farmer and avid gardener. But you don't have to be an avid gardener to want to extend the season of color in your garden. The list of cold season crop plants include pansies, remember them? Also on the list are ornamental cabbage plants, chrysanthemums, and a very showy succulent called Sedum 'Autumn Joy'. These four plants can handle a few frost events as the temps drop, so throw caution to the wind and get planting.
Pansies are one flower burned into my childhood memory as a popular plant to use in the garden. These flowers were given out in the early spring by the church we went to and I was always so struck by their vibrant, velvety purple and yellow colors. Plus the flowers looked like little faces that you could never forget especially given the Walt Disney cartoon experience. At this time in my history, plants did not do well in my family's midst, but I did notice other people were able to keep them alive. But alas, I watched these church flowers die, never believing one day I might actually know why. Over the years new cultivars have been developed in both Germany and in the United States and there are now many new colors. Whether you buy plants that are already growing or try to grow them from seed yourself, find a spot that is up-close-and-personal where you like to spend your time outside or gazing out your window and load it up with your favorite colors.
Since pansies are more of a cool season flower, they have to compete with ornamental cabbages and Chrysanthemums for the preferred fall choice. They have susceptibilities to various fungi and insects, over the other two, and because they are a favorite of the deer population, it took some reinvention by the industry to help them regain their foothold. With the invention of easy-to-install deer netting they are used more widely on landscaped medians in the fall after the annuals have been pulled out and because they can tolerate over-wintering, they can be left in the ground and will re- sprout in the early spring, along with the early season spring bulbs.
Ornamental cabbages are usually a bi-color plant of pink and green or white and green. Some of the varieties have decorative feathery edged leaves. It is confusing for some when they see these cabbages because people wonder if they are edible. (Hint: they are.) They are used because they are decorative, not because they are winter-hardy—they will die out with the first hard frost or temperature drop.
Chrysanthemums, nicknamed mums, are planted in the fall and that is because that's when they normally flower. Of course, mums are seen all year round, whether in flower arrangements or in pots, at the supermarket, the garden center or florist are around for all of the holidays and every day in-between. They are a very versatile, showy flower that comes in lots of colors and several varieties and serve as a mainstay of the industry. I got married in September, so I am particularly fond of the mum and used pots of them around the venue, my Aunt and Uncle's new house. The added special treat of the mum is that there is a variety that is cold hardy. Cold hardy means they are perennial and can live through the winter. Keep in mind that the hardy mums sold in the fall have probably been pinched back once or twice during the growing season making the stems shorter and the flowers larger. “Pinching” is a growers term for actually pinching, or cutting, the top of a stem off. Pinching the top off encourages branching, so a stem with one flower may now produce two. The other reasons to pinch a top is to delay the flowering cycle and to try to produce a more compact plant. Some literature suggest the last pinch should be around the middle of July so that the flower buds are set by the fall. There is no magic day so make a mark on you own calendar and stick to it. I, on the other hand, am never that organized and have never “pinched” my mums. The stems grow as long as they do and if they flatten out, so be it. I like leaving natural things natural and see what nature makes them do. I have not had all of the colors come back from year to year but have had great success with the white and yellow varieties. They provide a contrast to the new ones I may add and I just think it is exciting to see what happens.
Another fall flowering perennial is the Sedum - Autumn Joy. They have the distinction of flowering late and the flowering process can last 4 to 8 weeks. The flowers start off looking lime green then slowly change to pink and from there turn brown, but each phase is a wonder. They are bumble bee attractors, so locate them accordingly. The stems are fleshy, not woody, so they are susceptible to laying down which can be circumvented by staking. They are a lovely contrast to the cabbages, mums and pansies and they come back every year. They are in the succulent family, which is related to the cactus. They are thorn-less but, like cacti, have flowers that exceed expectations. The kicker with this plant is it is usually found in the spring with the other perennials but occasionally there are left overs so they can be used in fall arrangements.
Fall planting can extend beyond the seasonal flowering plants and can include trees and shrubs.
While it is more common to see them planted in the spring, it is really a better to plant in the fall. There are a few limitations, the main one being availability of plant material, but if you are not wedded to something specific, make your move. Tree/shrub planting in the fall has many significant benefits because of the additional rainfall and cooler temperatures helping with usual transplanting maintenance required. Trees and shrubs planted in the fall require less watering and plant roots typically grow in the fall so they will need less watering the following year because their root system is more established. Fall is not the time to dig up root balls for transplanting certain varieties of plant material, Dogwoods being one. Limit the fall planting to those trees and shrubs that were dug in the spring or are in pots. Once planted make sure they are watered in once really well and make sure they are mulched. Then wait........Spring will hold a a host of new surprises.