I figured I had better squeeze this post in while the snow is light. Yes, it is mid-October and we already saw some snowflakes and my son drove through a blizzard in western New York. That tells us that we should get our act together quickly and get our fall preparations finished.
Who plants in the fall? That may be your initial response. The answer is those of us that think ahead.
My focus on fall planting in this post is with bulb type plants. There is not much time left in the North Country of New York State to get this done before it will be too late. When is too late? If the ground becomes frozen for most of a day, it may be too late. If you experience frost, but the ground continues to be soft, you might get by.
Fall planted flower bulbs (for spring blooms) can be purchased from any of the garden centers or large chain stores like Walmart and Home Depot. Look for the largest bulbs you can find that are firm. That will indicate that they are ready, with a lot of stored energy, to last the winter and grow well. If you do not plant them right away after buying them, then keep them cool and in a dark environment so they do not dry out.
Some of the most common bulbs to plant are daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips. While crocuses look like a bulb to the untrained eye, they are actually a corm and can be planted in the fall as well. Each bulb will have its own planting depth, so read the instructions for each. Generally, it ranges from 4 to 6 inches deep above the top of the bulb.
Bulbs need a lot of cold time in the ground to flower. That is why they need to be in the ground over the winter. Furthermore, they need to develop a root system so they are ready to sprout first thing in the spring. Planting before the ground freezes is essential.
You can fertilize when planting, but if you do, put it below the bulb and then cover it with dirt so it does not touch the bulb. Do not use high nitrogen fertilizer. Something like 5-10-5 would be sufficient. Remember, if you get a large healthy bulb, it already has the energy stored for next year. I do apply fertilizer to my bulbs in the spring to make them healthy and to grow larger bulbs for the next year. Again, they do not need a lot of nitrogen. One word of caution when using bone meal as a fertilizer; some rodents will smell it and dig the bulb out to get to it.
If you are very frugal, like myself, you will notice that some bulbs have little bulblets under the thin paper-like wrapper around the bulb. I break them off and plant them individually. They will not blossom next year, but it also will not take nutrients away from the larger parent bulb. If you supply them with the proper care over the next year, those bulblets will mature and give you blooms the following year. That is an easy way to propagate more flowers instead of wasting more money. Furthermore, every several years you can dig your bulbs up and divide them similarly. One indicator that they need dividing is when you get a mass of stems with no blossoms. There simply is not enough nutrients for one bulb to develop enough stored energy for flowers.
Is there anything we should plant in the vegetable garden in the fall? You bet! Get your garlic cloves in the ground. Notice that I did not say to get your garlic bulbs in. Never plant the entire garlic bulb. Each clove in the bulb would grow and they will have to share nutrients. You will not get good garlic that way. Break each clove off and plant them individually 4 inches apart. Use cloves from the best garlic bulbs that you have and plant the largest cloves. Remember; the best plants and the best seeds are the ones that we propagate, not eat. It’s all about sustainability and genetic selection.
Some gardeners will leave some plants in the ground (like carrots and onions) and mulch them in deeply for the winter. Those plants, if they survive, will be used to make seeds the following year. I do not recommend that procedure. Many of the plants will be heaved up from the frost, others are not hardy enough, and the remaining could be eaten by voles. I have experienced all of the above. Some plants actually made it through the winter; however, storing onions or carrots in the house is far more successful. I did have a neighbor in the Adirondacks that was able to keep carrots in the ground through the winter and would remove the deep mulch to eat them during the winter. He only did that one winter. My guess is that the carrots were not that great. A cold root cellar with a bin of damp sand would be much better for keeping them through the winter.
I will not focus on planting trees in the fall because it is problematic for several reasons, some of which are:
The roots do not have any time to grow and secure themselves in the soil.
If the tree has been in a pot all summer long, it probably does not have a lot of stored energy to last through the winter. That is why they may be on sale.
They may not be dormant and will experience transplant shock.
Some people will get lucky and the tree will survive, but I have had more luck with spring planting of dormant bare rooted trees from reliable nurseries. And no, I do not consider most of the so-called nurseries to be reliable, as they order their stock from other states and the condition they come in is horrid or is already growing out of season for our weather. They are more of a “garden center.” Find a nursery that grows its own trees and sells them themselves in a location within a couple hundred miles from your location. Most of the catalogs do not grow their own trees, but will imply that they do. Additionally, my advice for planting trees is the opposite as that for bulbs; select smaller (but healthy) trees to plant that have extensive root systems. They will have less transplant shock and will need less nutrients to grow their first season. The energy will go into developing roots instead of sustaining a large trunk and stems. Most trees sold at garden centers are the complete opposite; fewer roots with big tops. If you do get those big trees, then be absolutely sure you put them on a regimented watering schedule.
Fall planting would not be complete if we did not mention those plants that we need to dig up. If you have begonias or dahlias, then dig them up after the first frost kills the leaves. Store them through the winter as follows:
For dahlias, this can be an art-form and I recommend searching for a website devoted to them. The bulbs have eyes and you must keep an eye (that is at the junction near the stem) with the tuber. It requires cutting part of the stem to keep with the tuber. Broken tubers without eyes will not sprout. The next hardest part is getting them through the winter without rotting or drying out. Some people use fungicides to help. Regardless, they need to be kept cool, in the dark, and in some medium that will hold enough moisture to keep them from drying, but not too damp to make them rot. Expect that many will not survive.
For begonias, dry them for a few days until the stems easily break off, place in a paper bag, and then put them in a similar storage environment as a potato. (Cool and dark.)
Another plant that needs to be dug up is gladiolus. Using a garden fork/spade, dig under the plant and pop it out of the ground. Use the stem to pull up on it to help it along. Cut the stem off at a point 1 inch from the corm. Dry the corm for about three weeks in a warm dry location. Discard the old corm if it is there and leave the new one. Store it in an onion type netting bag that is hung in the basement. Replant them in the spring two weeks before the last expected frost. The small cormels at the bottom of the mature corm can be removed after drying or you can remove them before planting and plant them individually if you wish to propagate more plants. They will not bloom the first year, however.
Now that we have completed our fall planting and dug up our others for storage, we need to direct our attention to fall preparations.
Fall preparations that I refer to are not strictly raking leaves. It involves protecting many of your vulnerable plants and trees. Some of the tasks are as follows:
Wrap the bases of fruit trees with hardware cloth. Rabbits (a.k.a long eared beavers) and voles will eat the bark off the trees during the winter. Especially if there is deep snow. They will girdle the tree and it will die in the spring. Young trees can be wrapped with spiral plastic protectors, but be sure to remove them just as soon as the snow is gone in the spring. Otherwise, they will protect borers and other nasties that will eat the bark under the plastic.
Mulch plants that are susceptible to sever cold. The mulch evens-out the temperature to keep the frost/melt cycle from heaving the roots apart. Wait until the ground is frozen before mulching. Otherwise, voles will move in under the mulch and eat your roots during the winter. One old gardener said that mulching with pine boughs helps to discourage voles.
Paint the trunks of peach trees or trees that have sustained sunscald damage. Use INTERIOR light colored latex paint that is diluted half with water. The light color will reflect the sun’s rays. It sounds like you would want the opposite during the winter. You do not, especially with peach trees. The south and westerly sun will heat the bark, and then it gets cold rapidly when the sun sets. This hot/cold change kills the bark of peach trees that are grown in the northern part of the United States. For trees that have experienced sunscald, it will protect them from borers. Clean the dead bark away, let it dry, and then paint the affected area.
Kill off as many voles and mice as possible. They wreak havoc with power equipment when they build their nests, and they eat plants and roots of plants. Furthermore, they transport ticks. For voles, simply place traps in their pathways without bait. For mice, use peanut butter on traps. If that is too slow, then put out poison bait blocks. Last year I kept track and counted 145 voles that I caught from traps. That did not include those that I killed with poison. It was the best year ever for rhubarb because they did not eat all of the roots. It was also the best year for my grape vine. Voles are devastating to your plants and most people do not even realize that they have them and that there are so many of them.
Remove debris that vermin can live under. That includes flat pieces of wood, logs, boxes, etc.
Clean out dead and rotting plants.
Do NOT trim your trees or bushes. As tempting as this may be, do not do it. It will leave cuts that cannot heal before winter and let in bugs looking for a soft spot to live through the winter. Wait until late winter or early spring when the limbs are dormant and the buds have not yet swelled.
Fertilize your trees and shrubs one month after the first killing frost. The roots will use it for health and growing roots. It will be too cold to produce top growth. Be sure to know your soil so you get the proper fertilizer. Take soil tests. If you do not test your soil, then use a general-purpose 10-10-10 fertilizer.
If you planted Rosemary, then dig it up, pot it, and bring it in the house for the winter. You can then plant it back outside in the spring. You can also use it to take cuttings from in the winter to make new plants to put outside in the spring.
You should have already cut your herbs to dry, but if not, then get right to it. Sage can be cut back to about 4 inches. Lovage can be cut to about two inches, winter savory can be cut down to one inch, as can mints. Thyme can be left to grow if it is mulched. Basil should have already been harvested completely. Oregano can be cut to one inch. Chives can be left alone. Tarragon can be cut to one inch.
One more piece of advice; take pictures of your plants! The pictures will help you to identify plant locations in the spring so you do not accidentally dig them up or pull them out thinking that they are a weed.
Enjoy the fall!