Just because the air is getting colder and leaves are beginning to abandon their branches, winter is not here yet.
In fact, fall is the best time to plant for the spring, according to local nursery and greenhouse owners.
“Even in fall and early winter, there’s a lot going on below ground with root growth and development which can continue through January, depending on the winter we’re having,” said David Yost, plant specialist at Merrifield Garden Center. “The underground growth also will restart before anything happens above ground in the spring. Take advantage of this time.”
It’s also not too late to plant for fall colors.
“If you want lasting color, pansies are good for the fall. If you want to spruce things up, go with mums,” said Chrissie Twardowski from Meadow Farms Nursery. “Plants like the Burning Bush or Pyracantha are at their most showy in the fall,” she said.
Mums are the most popular item this time of year, with red and orange colored blossoms that will last up to six weeks, she said. “Pansies will last through the winter and come back again in the spring.”
The Burning Bush earns its name from the fiery red leaves, and Pyracantha has small, dark green leaves and produces tiny orange berries.
“As long as the ground is soft, you can plant any time,” Twardowski said. “Any type of plant is safe to plant in the fall.”
“Plus, perennials tend to be cheaper this time of year,” she said.
WHEN A heavy frost comes, or to protect plants from cold temperatures, several strategies exist to make sure plants survive to see another springtime.
“Perennial beds should be cleaned after a hard frost, when the herbaceous plants have died off, then mulch should be applied,” said Cassandra Dickinson, manager at the Burke Nursery and Garden Center. “It’s totally safe to plant shrubs, trees, perennials, anything.”
To prepare plants for winter, Dickinson recommends keeping plants well hydrated throughout the winter.
“It might be necessary to water outdoor plants every two to three weeks if it’s a dry winter,” she said. “If a person has hollies or any kind of plant with a very dense leaf, there’s a product called Wilt Proof that seals the leaves during the winter to keep moisture in,” she said. The product also protects the leaves from getting scorched from cold winds.
Mulching is key, Dickinson said. Typically, a layer of mulch about three inches thick should suffice the winter, providing not only insulation from the cold but also nutrients for healthy growth, she said.
While most mulches are equally effective, she said to be wary of mulch given away by towns or counties.
“Mulch sold at garden centers is made from the outer parts of tree trucks, which is perfectly healthy wood,” she said. “The mulch that mulching centers give away, there’s no guarantee of what’s in there. It could be from trimmings, it could be lawn scraps, it may have diseased trees in it.”
Mulch that hasn’t been cured or that contains diseased tree pieces may be acidic or filled with bacteria that could do more damage to the plants, she said.
Timing is key with laying mulch: if done too soon, the ground may be too warm, she said.
“Plants that might be marginally able to survive in winter, like gardenias or plants that are typically grown further south, may be able to be saved if protected,” Yost said.
“It may be necessary to put an extra layer of mulch on a sensitive plant,” he said. “Some people might wrap an evergreen bush in burlap or frost cloth to help keep off the winter winds.”
Plants that have been in the ground for only a year or two are still building a root structure, he said, and are especially at risk of dehydration.
“There’s been times in the past few years we’ve had dry spells, and I’ll remind people to water their plants, even outdoors,” Yost said.