The Ultimate Fall Planting Guide
With the weather cooling down after a hot summer, it's time to get in gear and prep for one of our favorite times of the year: fall planting! As we change our home décor for oranges and reds and pumpkins, it's also time to give our gardens a jump start before winter. Fall is a cool season and is actually one of the best times to plan and plant your gardens.
|Planning Your Fall Planting||Prepping for Fall Planting||What To Plant In The Fall||Lawn & Garden Fall Maintenance|
When the air is cooling and the soil is still warm from the summer, many plants switch gears to focus on healthy root growth, especially most trees and shrubs. Many roots grow quickly in the fall. As long as you plant early enough in the season, your plants will have a head start in life focusing all of their resources on creating a strong, well-established root system. This will help them be more stable and have a healthier bloom cycle next season.
Fall is an ideal time to rearrange some of your established plants if you want to freshen up the look of your landscaping. You can fill in areas in your flower beds and home landscaping with fall-blooming annuals and perennials, or make room for more shrubs that will bring winter interest later in the year. Don't forget about planting fall vegetables that will be ready to harvest right before the first frost.
We've broken down our ultimate fall planting checklist into four parts: Planning, Prepping, Planting, and Maintenance. You can also download our FREE FALL LAWN AND GARDEN CHECKLIST - bring this with you as prep and plant your best fall garden ever. Now get ready - this accompanying blog is the most comprehensive fall planting guide we've ever made. And it still doesn't cover everything we could talk about - we'll save starting seeds indoors and sowing seeds for another day.
The most important thing to remember about planting in the fall is, if you can dig, you can garden. If the soil is workable, plants want to be in the ground. Ok, now that we've cleared that up, let's get started.
PLANNING FOR FALL PLANTING
Mark on your Calendar Your Area's Estimated First Frost
This is absolutely key to a successful fall season. This is typically the date when all of your plants should be nice and dormant. It's ideal to be finished with your fall planting at least 4 weeks before this date. You can garden as long as the ground is workable, so no need to feel rushed during days with nice cool temperatures. The dates we list below are recommendations, not hard and fast rules.
The Farmer's Almanac defines the first frost as the date when your area has historically experienced a ground temperature of 32* Fahrenheit or lower (aka a light frost), according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This very specific definition has a few implications, and it's only an estimate, so we'll break down what this means and how to use it. Note: The Farmer's Almanac also recommends allowing for a 30% chance that this date will change.
First, ground freezing is often separate from the weather. Warm air rises, so water is more likely to freeze at ground level before it freezes in the air. This means your first frost can hit before your weather report will go below 32*F. This is a light frost, not a hard freeze. Only the first foot of ground will freeze at most, and many roots reach below that point.
Second, the historic data that the Farmer's Almanac uses is a range between 1981 and 2010. So, if your area has experienced any extreme differences in the past 10 years, that might not have been included in your area's calculated first frost. There are ways to protect plants from early freezes, and we'll cover that later (hint: light cloth). But these are the reasons why it's ideal to be done 4 weeks before the date when your area is estimated to have that first frost. Not set in stone, but preferable.
Don't assume just because you live further south that you have a later date, either. Altitude is a major factor in these calculations. Athens, GA has the same first frost estimate as Annapolis, MD - this is because Annapolis is at sea level and Athens is much higher up, even though it is three states south. In 2021, the first frosts are ranging anywhere from October 3rd in Coldwater, MI to November 30th in Austin, TX. You can check for your date here.
OK, now that we have our starting point, let's work backwards.
Make A Schedule
Different plants prefer a different amount of time before your first frost in order to thrive during winter dormancy. Evergreens are actually some of the plants that like the most time since they will still be using some resources for their evergreen foliage all winter long. Spring bulbs, on the other hand, will do better when planted much closer to that endpoint, since they need good cold weather before being planted.
Here is a breakdown of when you could plan on planting what:
ASAP - as soon as the weather cools - First, this is prep time, which we will explain later. Also, it's time to plant your winter vegetables that need the most time, your fall-blooming perennials, and your fall annuals. Anything that flowers in fall should have lots of time to put on a good show, but wait until the risk of summer heatwaves has completely passed.
90 days (10 - 12 weeks) Before First Frost - This is a good time to plant any evergreens, to move around your already established plants, to plant big shade trees, and divide and replant your perennials that have finished their bloom cycles.
60 days (6 to 8 weeks) Before First Frost - Time for planting more fall annuals, planting large trees and shrubs, and planting the last of your vegetable garden.
40 days (4 to 6 weeks) Before First Frost - Time for Spring Bulbs! And planting more shrubs. This is also the time you should be winding down on mowing your lawn and planting grass seed.
30 days (3 to 4 weeks) Before First Frost - Missing anything? Time to fill in the gaps and plant things you forgot or didn't think of. This is a great time to finish your spring bulbs and finish planting any winter-blooming shrubs and perennials.
Alright. Now that you know when different plants prefer to be in the ground, you need to determine what you want to put in the ground, and where.
Map Out Your Planting
Here is where your creativity will shine. What do you want to plant? How do you want to rearrange your garden? What veggies do you want to enjoy eating this winter? Put together a shopping list. This is also when you can measure out how far apart you'll space your new plants away from each other. Check out each plant's product page to see their full mature size - you'll want to allow for that space now to avoid any issues down the road.
Test your Soil
When was the last time you performed a soil test? If it's been a while, now's the time to check and see what nutrients your soil might be missing. You're not going to want to use any fertilizer after Labor Day, so amending your soil in the fall is best done by adding compost and other organic elements. It's more important to test for things that root systems look for. This is why we love using Biotone Starter Plus in the fall - it gives root systems exactly what they need to become established, and a low enough dose early on shouldn't mess with your plants' dormancy cycles.
Checking and amending your soil for adequate water drainage is going to be a better focus in the fall. Water the area where you want to plant new plants, and then check the soil every day. How quickly does the top two inches of soil dry out? If it's almost immediately, your soil isn't retaining the amount of water roots need in the fall, and adding compost will help. If it doesn't dry out quickly enough (which is more likely if you're near a house foundation or live with clay soils), then you need to add more elements to improve drainage. Pine fines, leaf mulch, peat moss, and gypsum can all help improve your soil's water drainage. Once you know how quickly or slowly your water drains, you'll be better equipped to know how often to water.
Even though the weather is cooling, you're going to need to water your lawn and garden well. Typically, an inch a week is a good rule of thumb, and less frequent waterings that go deeper are best. You don't want to drown roots but you need to make sure they stay hydrated while they are getting established. Some plants like Arborvitae will want a little extra water in the winter anytime the weather thaws, but typically fall is when roots are soaking up water in preparation for winter dormancy. Your prep time is a great time to invest in Soaker Hoses or Water Gators - they help keep soil deeply hydrated on a regular basis.
Budget for Good Mulch.
Mulch is fall planting's best friend. Mulch can make or break a successful fall planting season because mulch is what is going to help regulate the temperature of your soil. Warm soil means happy roots, and an even layer of 2 inches of fresh organic mulch will help keep that summer warmth in for longer. Your whole garden should ideally get fresh organic mulch, so that everything has a two to three-inch layer. Remember to leave an inch of space for all of your stems and trunks when it's time to mulch, to prevent disease.
Ok, you've planned, you've budgeted, you've gone shopping, and you've even gotten a brand new trowel. It's finally time to... prep. There's still some preparations to do while your trees, shrubs, perennials, seeds, and annuals are on their way.
PREPPING FOR FALL PLANTING
Sanitize Your Tools
A major part of dividing perennials means cutting them, and you'll want those cuts to be as clean as possible. Scoring your root balls is another part of planting fall shade trees, which also needs clean cuts. Clean sharp tools mean the cuts will heal faster, preventing disease and dead limbs. Use rubbing alcohol or a 2% bleach mixture (2 units of bleach per 100 units of water).
Clear out any Dead Plants and Spent Summer Annuals
Moist fall soil is a ripe time for fungus and bacteria to spread. Check your planting areas for anything that could spread any nasty issues, and dispose of dead material properly if it looks suspicious. Otherwise, you can compost any annuals, leaves, and debris that are in the way.
Till Your Garden Beds
OK, this is more important for your vegetable garden, unless you've just harvested your summer crops. Aerating the soil and incorporating new compost mixtures or manure will help feed your new veggies.
Freshen up the Soil in Your Planters, and Bring your Warm Weather Potted Plants Indoors
Fall Planters are one of the joys of fall - you can freshen up your patio planters and enjoy bright shows of vivid seasonal colors. Mixing ornamental annuals with Mums and Heuchera can create some stunning color palates. Get ready by adding new potting soil after removing your spent summer plants.
Then, bring any plants that won't enjoy the cool weather, such as your citrus trees and other tropical plants, inside. You'll want to start the process of transitioning them to the indoors earlier than later so that you can do it slowly. Bringing a tropical plant inside all at once, especially after the weather is below 50*F at night, is certain doom. This writer learned this the hard way after losing a five-foot-tall Plumeria tree overnight. Bring them inside for an hour the first day, then add an hour every other day until they can be inside for 8 hours. Only then should you move them in full time, before nights are too cold.
Gather Your Tools
Here are some Lawn and Garden Tools that we think go a long way towards making your life easier. Sprayers, grass seed spreaders, hoses, and other little tricks of the trade will make a long day go by much faster.
Now... it's finally go time.
WHAT TO PLANT IN THE FALL
Here is an autumn planting list of plants we recommend:
Lawn - Grass Seed or Sod. Either way, fall is a great time to freshen up your grass.
Vegetables - plant according to the time the seeds state they need to mature. If you choose frost tolerant plants, you can plant later.
Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Spinach, Swiss Chard, Carrots, Garlic (for spring harvest), Onions (for spring harvest), Arugula, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Beets, Parsnips, Turnips, Radishes, Collards, Lettuce, and any winter cover crops for areas you're not using.
Annuals - plant earlier than later in order to enjoy all season, unless they need cool weather like Violas. Don't forget to deadhead them all season for fuller growth.
Mums, Calendula, Pansies, Cyclamen, Dusty Miller, Ornamental Kale and Ornamental Cabbage, Ornamental Peppers.
Perennials - You can plant almost any Perennial that hasn't gone fully dormant but has finished its bloom cycle. This includes ornamental grasses that aren't dormant yet, as well as hostas, ferns, and other spring favorites. Bluebells and other perennials that are already dormant are better planted in early spring, as well as any perennials that are on the cusp of hardiness for your grow zone. If you're trying to stretch a perennial meant for zones 7 to 9 into zone 6, do so in the spring.
Fall Blooming/Fall Interest Perennials: Asters, Rudbeckia, Russian Sage, Sedum, Dianthus, Solidago, Anemone, Coral Bells, Coreopsis, Astilbe. Chrysanthemums can be perennials in southern grow zones. Plant your Hellebore now for winter blooming.
Shrubs: Almost all shrubs like being planted in the fall. We repeat, even if they're not blooming, you can plant your spring-flowering shrubs in the fall. That way next spring they break dormancy in the ground with a well-established root system and can really shine. Mix and match your shrubs depending on their seasons of interest, so that your garden has visual layers and texture all year.
Evergreen Trees & Shrubs- plant these earlier than later, since they need more time for their roots than other trees.
Arborvitae, Thuja Green Giants, Hollies, Spruce, Cypress, Skip Cherry Laurels, Hicks Yew, Juniper Trees, Juniper Shrubs, Pine Trees, Cryptomeria.
Shade, Flowering, Fruit & Nut Trees - Here is our detailed guide on how and why to plant shade trees in the fall. (Hint - you'll save money next summer). For Fruit & Nut Trees, they are also shifting gears and focusing on root growth, and breaking dormancy in the ground next spring is great for a good yield next year. Check the recommendations for various flowering trees and fruit trees, since some do better with spring planting in order to have more time to get established for their first year in an orchard.
Shade Trees with Fall Interest: Autumn Maples, Redbud Trees, Dogwood Trees, Oaks, Sycamores, Tulip Poplars, and Elm Trees. Japanese Maples and Crape Myrtles offer winter interest with their brightly colored bark.
Spring Bulbs - Can be planted the latest in the year, since they like the cold temperatures. You can even start them in the fridge if you're waiting for the weather to cool to 50*F. Plant down 6 inches, with the point facing up. Mix and match early spring with late spring bulbs.
Crocus, Daffodils, Tulips, Peonies, Snowdrops, Allium, Lilies, Bearded Iris.
How to Plant In the Fall
Most of the plants we offer feature planting instructions on their product pages, and we recommend reading those in case a specific plant has any specific preferences. Generally, best planting practices almost always include:
Select an area with the right amount of sun,
Dig a hole the same depth and twice as wide as the root ball,
Amend the backfill soil mixture,
Gently score the root ball on the sides, or loosen the roots gently,
Position the plant so its original soil is level with the ground,
Backfill the hole while gently compacting the soil,
Water thoroughly and cover the area with mulch.
Keep mulch an inch away from the stem to prevent disease.
Allow space in the mulch where you can check your soil moisture on a regular basis. When the top two inches of soil are dry to the touch it's time to water again. Water each plant for 5 seconds per gallon size.
Since you did all that prep ahead of time, the actual planting process is smooth sailing.
FALL LAWN AND GARDEN MAINTENANCE
Ok, your perfect garden is in the ground, looking beautiful. Now what? Here are some Do's and Don'ts for maintaining your lawn and garden from September to November.
Do Divide your Perennials after their blooming cycle is over. This will help the overall health of the plant every 3 to 4 years. Use clean tools.
Do Put Your Fertilizer Away After Labor Day. Once you've added compost to your soil in early fall and starter nutrients when planting, leave your soil alone. Fertilizer will disrupt the natural process that allows your plans to go dormant and thrive in the winter.
Do Keep Mowing Your Lawn. Lower your blades slowly, a little at a time. By the time you get to the end of the fall season, your blades should be 2" above the ground.
Do Aerate Your Lawn. This is the time to break up the sod slightly and incorporate oxygen into the ground. You don't need to go too deep.
Do protect your vegetables from early frosts. If cold weather hits and your veggies aren't ready, use row covers, light burlap, or cloth to protect your plants from the cold weather. A light cover should do the trick and keep your delicate plants protected.
Do Use Biotone Starter Plus When Planting. This Espoma product is designed to feed roots and assist a plant when it is first planted. If it is later in the season you can use a half-strength or quarter-strength dose just to be careful, or wait and add some in the spring.
Don't Skimp on Good Mulch. Keep your soil nice and warm as the weather cools, so your roots can keep establishing themselves. As the weather gets really cold you can use fallen leaves to protect more delicate shrubs and saplings.
Do Water Your Garden Regularly, But Don't Drown Your Roots. Wait until the top few inches are dry. We've said this a lot but it's really important to get your water just right.
Do Keep Weeding. Weeds can inhibit blooms, steal resources, and choke out smaller plants, even late into the season.
Don't let fungus or pests attack your plants. Neem Oil Or Fungicide can keep these issues at bay, especially when the soil is especially moist after heavy rainfall.
Don't worry about cutting back your shrubs until later in the season. That is more a part of winterization, which we discuss in detail in this previous article.
Do Rake and Mulch Your Leaves. Or Don't. There is a lot of debate about whether or not leaves should be raked at all. On the one hand, fallen leaves are an important part of the natural life cycle of a forest ecosystem. The ground needs nutrients and protection from a layer of leaves, and many small critters, snakes, spiders, caterpillars, and other animals make their home specifically in fallen leaves. Removing these leaves removes nutrients that plants need as well as important homes to animals. However, leaves can kill lawns. Raking and then mulching your leaves means you could re-distribute the leaf material in such a way where your lawn gets nutrition but the grass also still gets sunlight. However you decide to manage your leaves, it's better to keep your leaves and compost them somehow rather than have the local dump truck take away all that great garden food.
Do watch the weather. Remember, the Farmer's Almanac estimate for the First Frost is just that... an estimate.
Don't Forget to Check Out...
- Planting Fall Bulbs for Your Spring Garden
- 3 Fall Gardening Tips That Will Make You Better Prepared for Spring
- Perennials for Fall Planters: Ornamental Grasses
- How to Choose the Best Privacy Trees
- 6 Principles of Landscape Design
Do Keep In Mind What You Should Save For Other Seasons:
By the time you've finished reading our Ultimate Fall Planting Checklist... fall might already be over. Hurry! Go check out these best-selling trees and shrubs and build your perfect garden. Our customer support team can also help you decide which trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, and tools are right for you.
See you in the garden!