Planning for the Fall Landscape

An Extension Master Gardener helps us prepare
Allowing cardinal flower's seed head to develop attracts birds and produces new plants come spring.

Fall is the workhorse season for gardeners. If you want to create a new bed, overhaul the lawn, or plant some trees and shrubbery, late September through December is your chance. Start planning now for large projects, so you can complete them at the right time.

The soil temperature during the fall provides optimal conditions for root growth, says Margaret Genkins, a Mecklenburg Extension Master Gardener. Fall plantings have several months to get established before they direct energy to foliage production.

"Spring makes us think of growth and rebirth," Genkins says. "And it's a great time to plant certain things … but for major landscape changes, fall is the time to do that work. It's much kinder to plant material, and you get a better return on investment."

Think about what woody perennials (plants that maintain a woody stem above the ground through the winter) that you want to plant. Draw a plan, prepare the space, develop a budget, and be ready to purchase and plant them this fall.

Most trees and shrubs are available in bare-root form, burlap, and plastic containers. Most of the plants in the containers are started in containers, so they have all of their roots, which can make transplanting easier, Genkins says. Those that come in bare-root or burlap form have had some of the roots cut away when they were removed from the dirt. For patient planters, smaller trees get established easier than larger ones.

"It's not an instant-landscaping look, but ultimately it's a healthier plant," Genkins says.

When you prepare your hole for planting, Genkins recommends digging it about three times the width of the container and the same depth as the soil. Make sure to loosen the roots. If the roots are severely bound, cut them down the side or across the bottom to promote new growth. Many gardeners are tempted to amend the soil they use to fill in around the plant with rich compost, but Genkins cautions against it. The plants' roots will want to stay in that enriched soil instead of integrating into the new surrounding environment. Break up the soil you removed from the hole and use it to fill in around the plant to avoid creating a barrier for the root system.

If a major lawn renovation is in order to restore compacted soil and multiple bare spots, Genkins recommends an organic method of rejuvenation. In mid-September, mow the lawn down to three inches. Then cover the lawn with one-third to one-half inch of finished compost. (Mecklenburg County has finished compost available for purchase.) Rake the compost down into the grass, aerate the lawn with a plug-style aerator, and put down grass seed. This process adds organic material to the soil. Cool-season turf lawns, such as fescue, are dormant in the hot summer months, so fall is one of the best times for roots to grow and establish.

When it comes to deadheading and pruning your perennials, don't rush it, Genkins says. She waits to cut back her coneflowers, cardinal flowers, and other plants with seed heads until into the winter. The fallen seeds attract birds to the backyard, and some reseed and come up as new plants in the spring.

"I can use them to give to friends, use them for Master Gardener plant sales, or to replant in my own garden," Genkins says.

So when it comes to fall gardening, make your preparations, but also allow Mother Nature to make its own.

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