As summer begins to take its leave and autumn stands waiting in the wings, we feel an urge to redirect our garden energies. This change of season signals a shift in our focus from the daily maintenance of watering, deadheading and mowing lawns to preparation for fall planting and the inevitable arrival of winter. Inherent in the transition from one season to the next, betwixt and between, is the desire to go forward.
The truth is, gardeners crave change and the natural passage of the seasons accommodates our needs. More than anything else, it gives every gardener a viable excuse to make plans to make some changes in the garden. What better way to follow through on this idea than to add new plants to the garden. Since my two pet projects are buying plants and planting them out in the garden, this just happens to be my favorite time of year.
The return of moderate autumn weather is a signal to begin planting again. Planting in the long, hot days of full summer sun would have taxed the ability of newly planted trees and shrubs to survive. The stress of establishing root growth in dry summer soil while trying to supply enough water to sustain leaf production is too much for most plants. By planting in the fall, you assure a period of perfect growth conditions.
Typically, this time between seasons is perfect for finding plant bargains. If you have coveted a specific specimen plant but hesitated to buy because of the cost, there’s a good chance the price will be marked down in the coming month. This is especially true if the plant you are looking for is out of season and past its prime. The trick is to shop late enough for good sale prices and early enough for a decent selection.
Consider every category of plant when filling out your garden plan, including hardy perennials, shrubs, trees, groundcovers, vines and bulbs. As long as you are buying from a reputable nursery, it should be a safe bet that sale plants will come back next year as well as any full-priced plant. This is an especially good time to buy several of the same plants for mass planting. Let the store manager know that you’re interested in a dozen or more plants for an even better deal.
I always encourage my garden friends to go plant shopping with a fairly clear picture of their garden in mind. At the very least you should have a tentative plant list and an idea of how much you want to spend. If you know what plants you intend to buy, write down their exact names and varieties, preferably using the Latin nomenclature. Bring along the general measurements of the area you are planting and be conscious of the extent of planting you are willing to tackle at this time. Consider hiring a garden consultant to help you through this process or ask your nursery if they have a service that can assist you.
Who can deny that part of the pleasure of buying new plants is to see an immediate impact on the garden? Just a few years ago, the only plants available for fall purchase were those left over from summer stock. Fortunately, as the population of gardeners grows in our community, more nurseries carry a larger selection of healthy, late-season bloomers. Look for asters, Japanese anemones, and the orchid-like flowers of the toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta spp.). In the Northwest, even grocery stores carry a selection of hardy perennials, trees, shrubs and hedging materials.
Trees and shrubs come into their own at this time of year with impressive displays of vivid reds, oranges and yellows. The Stag’s Horn sumac (Rhus typhina) is dramatic with flaming foliage and torch-like fruit clusters. The color intensity of deciduous trees and shrubs such as Japanese maple, vine maple, ‘Goldflame’ spirea and Golden Barberry can vary from plant to plant, so choose individual woody plants now for their fall color.
Much of our attention, as we pass from summer to autumn, is on thoughtful preparation for the upcoming seasons. As the summer wanes and fall commences, our gardens invite us to undergo a metamorphosis along with them. Before you go to bed tonight, take a moment to envision any changes you would like to make. Be willing to dream and let your imagination take you wherever it wants to go. This, too, is part of the art of gardening.
Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.