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Plant in the fall to get a jump on spring

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Catherine W. Idzerda
September 8, 2013

JANESVILLE—When spring comes to Wisconsin, people emerge from their homes with one desire: To see green things growing—immediately.

Those spring trips to the nursery are like rewards for surviving the winter.

But consider this: The autumn is just as good, and in some cases better, for planting.

“In spring, people really have that built-in urge to plant,” said Phyliss Williams, co-owner of K & W Greenery.  “In the fall, we have to prod ourselves a little bit to get planting, but it's worth it.”  

Mark Dwyer, director of horticulture at Rotary Botanical Gardens agreed, adding that autumn planting has distinct advantages.

“Because you're planting in mid to late September, you don't have the challenges of those hot days that you have in mid-summer,” said Mark Dwyer, director of horticulture at Rotary Botanical Gardens.  “And it gives the roots an opportunity to get established.”

Fall, he said, is an “awesome time to plant” not just for perennials, but also for shrubs, roses and trees.

“You can really get a jump on spring,” Dwyer said. 

We asked local experts for fall planting tips: What works, what doesn't, and the advantages of planting now instead of waiting until spring.

Getting a head start:  Gardeners have a saying: Perennials “sleep” the first year they're planted, “creep”—grow slowly—the second year and “leap”  the third year.

Fall planting is “almost like giving your plants another growing year,” Williams said.

“It's all about the roots,” Williams said. “The plants almost have two rooting seasons. One in the fall, and another in late February--the spring before anything else is really going on outside.”

Winter interest: Most of us buy plants when we see them flowering in the nursery, when they look their best.

But winter is a season in the garden, too, Dwyer said.

Shrubs or trees with red, yellow or white bark can add visual interest to the yard in winter. Trees with different forms or shrubs with berries can also add life to the winter yard.

Berries can also provide food for birds, and evergreens offer shelter.

Money matters: Thinking ahead can save you money and help support a good cause.

“If you can get yourself into action, into planting, you can typically save quite a bit of money off the fall sales,” Williams said.

The big box stores' selections drop off at this time of year, but independent nurseries still have plenty of choices.

On Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 14 and 15, Rotary Botanical Gardens is having its fall plant sale, and the proceeds go to benefit the gardens. They'll have a selection of giant mums, flowering kale and pansies, as well as hundreds of other perennials and shrubs.

Unexpected bulbs: If you want to see color in the yard early next year, consider planting something other—or in addition to—the traditional tulips and daffodil bulbs.

Some of the minor bulbs, such as snowdrops, scilla and the different varieties of squill, are great for March and early April color, Dwyer said.

“Winter aconite will come up through the snow,” Dwyer said.

Some of those same bulbs and others, such as early daffodils, can be planted in shady areas, where they will bloom before the trees leaf out, Dwyer said.

“You'll have flowering from late March all the way through May,” Dwyer said. “That way you're really getting foot on next spring.”

The standard rule is to plant bulbs three times deeper than their height. For example, a 1-inch bulb would go three inches into the ground. 

But Williams likes to plant them deeper.

“Sometime that means they come up a little later, but that can be a good thing,” Williams said.

A deeper planting can help with root development.

When planting bulbs, “the nose end,” or pointy end, goes up.

Williams suggests putting a little bit of bone meal at the bottom of the hole, under the bulb where its roots will grow. The bulb can't get to fertilizer that's on top of it, she said.

At Rotary Gardens, bulbs are planted staring Oct. 1.  After digging the hole for the bulb, volunteer planters put a little bit of Milorganite fertilizer in the bottom of the hole. They also spread a little bit of it on top of the planting to discourage squirrels from digging in the beds.

Milorganite is a fertilizer developed by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and is available at nurseries.

Williams said squirrels use visual clues to find bulbs and other treats. The best way to discourage them from digging up bulbs is to disguise those clues.

“Replace the dirt and pat in down,” Williams said.  “Put down a nice fresh layer of mulch.”

If you're planting bulbs under the grass, be sure to replace the patch of grass neatly.

Mulch matters: Williams and her staff spend a lot of time educating people about fall mulching.

“Most perennials—the perennials we sell here—don't need winter mulch,” Williams said.

If you feel you must mulch, wait until after the frost and then cut the plant back and cover it with a bucket of dirt, Williams said.  That's all that's needed.

Do not rake leaves over your perennial beds, Williams said.

The leaves form layers that smother the dirt. In addition, ice forms between the layers, and it takes longer for the earth to warm in the spring.

Leaves that are chopped in the mower will work as mulch, but most people don't want to take the time and effort to do that, Williams said.

One exception to the no-mulch-needed rule is hardy mums that go on sale this time of year.  They will only survive in special circumstances. Ask for instructions when you buy them.

Garlic goodness: In cold climates, fall is the best time to plant garlic. First, find starter cloves from a nursery, seed catalog or from a friend who has garlic in his or her garden.

Don't use garlic found in grocery stores. It's usually grown in milder climates and isn't suited to our area—either for growing or for storing.

The University of Minnesota Extension recommends planting garlic within one or two weeks of the first killing frost.

Plant the cloves with the pointed side up between two and four inches deep, and about six inches apart.

Water the soil.

About three to five weeks after planting, add 3 to 4 inches of mulch. Straw or dried leaves that have been chopped in the mower work well as mulch. 

The mulch helps protect the cloves from the freeze and thaw cycles.

In spring, remove the mulch when the threat of a hard frost has past. Garlic can handle temperatures in the 20s, but not for long, and not consistently.



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