Fall: The "other" spring

Fall is for bulb planting. — Proven Winners

Fall is for bulb planting. — Proven Winners

Autumn is often New Jersey’s best-behaved season and is a terrific time to tackle garden chores that will give you a jump on spring.

Now is when you should be thinking about planting trees, shrubs and bulbs, transplanting spring-blooming perennials, preparing new garden beds and maybe sneaking in some larger backyard projects. Think of fall as the “other” spring and go play in the dirt.

The state’s gardening industry likes to promote October as “Fall Gardening Month.” You don’t need a proclamation to wrap your head around this scientific fact: Many plants, especially trees and shrubs, can gain nearly an entire season’s growth when planted in the fall.

The reason why is simple botany. Soil temperatures remain warm, promoting healthy root growth which is Job One for newly planted specimens. Meanwhile the air is cooling and woody ornamentals are going dormant, so they don’t have to support a new leafy canopy. All their energy can be directed to settling in.

Contrast that to spring, when we wait and wait for air temperatures to moderate – and wait even longer for the soil to warm up. How many times have you champed at the bit to get out in the garden as March passes only to have April throw a curve ball with weird little heat waves that can fry young plants? And then comes another snow storm.

In the fall, you can plant almost until the ground freezes, experts say. I confess I rarely get my spring-flowering bulbs in until Thanksgiving weekend. It’s a tradition!

This year, fall might be more important than usual as a grace period for recovering from summer’s cruel heat and constant rains. Take comfort in knowing you have a good two months to start setting things right.

Plant trees and shrubs now so you can look forward to the rewards of your efforts next spring, when the new plants will take right off. The current thinking is not to heavily amend your native soil when planting unless it is particularly poor. Staking is also no longer recommended except in especially windy sites, since natural wind movement helps trunks grow stronger.

Look for fall bargains at nursery centers. — Adam Perkins/Flickr

Look for fall bargains at nursery centers. — Adam Perkins/Flickr

The one caveat is don’t fertilize, since you don’t want to encourage fresh, tender growth that will only be killed by frosts. You’re not looking to stimulate top growth now. Fall planting is not for instant gratification but for longer-term rewards.

With the possible exception of thin-barked species like dogwood and fruit trees, and evergreens, which hang onto their foliage, fall tree and shrub planting holds little risk. Just tuck some mulch around the trunks and stems to prevent the cycles of freeze and thaw that can heave roots out of the ground.

Spring-flowering bulbs are the best little down-payment on a colorful spring that anyone can name. Be lavish with daffodils, hyacinths and bulbous irises (which critters do not prefer) and give your tulips and crocuses some protection from the munchers. Fencing works, but lacing your planting with sharp-edged crushed oyster shell will also discourage bulb thieves like squirrels, voles and chipmunks.

Fall is also the ideal time to plant peonies, lilies, Oriental poppies and any perennial that blooms from early spring through mid June. Small specimens of later blooming perennials are better planted in spring, but any robust perennials grown too large can be divided and moved around now.

For plants with hellacious root systems (Siberian irises, hostas and daylilies to name three) try my favorite trick: Use back-to-back pitchforks to pry the daunting mass apart. That’s actually the polite way. With the tough, woody roots of Montauk daisies, I sometime resort to a bow saw or hatchet.

Vegetable gardening doesn’t have to end now, either. Consider sowing a fall crop of cool-season veggies like lettuce, spinach, radishes and hardy herbs including parsley and chives. I keep harvesting the latter two until the snow flies and sometimes beyond.

The real message here is don’t pack it in quite yet, dirt-diggers. Don’t we deserve a little bit of a good time in the garden before we say goodnight and goodbye for the year?