Turn, turn, turn: Getting your garden prepped for autumn

Plant your daffodils, like these in southern Albemarle, around Thanksgiving. Photo: Robert Llewellyn Plant your daffodils, like these in southern Albemarle, around Thanksgiving. Photo: Robert Llewellyn

Until the equinox on September 21, we bask in late, late summer. Walnut leaves are yellowing, black gums turn scarlet at the edge of the woods and the soil is warm as a sunny lake on Labor Day, more hospitable to root growth than the cold clay of March. Ample rainfall makes for ideal conditions this year but not every living thing is best suited for going into the ground in fall.

Grasses are in their glory. Catch some of Charlottesville’s spectacular meadows at IX Art Park and Martha Jefferson Hospital’s Murray Morris Meadow on Pantops. Prairie switch grass, pink Muhly grass, blue fescue and little bluestem also give grace and movement to rain gardens and mixed borders, but they are headed into dormancy now and can have difficulty making it through winter from a new planting. Better to wait for gallon containers that have broken growth to appear in garden centers next year. Other candidates for spring planting are woody herbs like lavender, rosemary and thyme, which can succumb to wet winter rot.

Trees and shrubs grown in containers are a better bet this time of year as nurseries lower their inventories. All the roots are inside, unlike balled and burlapped specimens that leave most of their roots in the field nursery and suffer the shock of digging. There’s nothing wrong with a pot-bound plant as long as the roots are healthy —just tease them out of their pot-like shape so they begin growing outward. Use your fingers or a claw garden tool and give sharp, clean cuts to any mangled roots.

Place the plant a bit above soil level in a well-dug hole that is wider than deep. Avoid the dreaded bathtub effect of a hole with steep sides where the plant is sunk right out of the pot into a slick-sided bowl of clay with no chance of escape before it drowns. Avoid excess fertilizer that burns tender roots. All that’s needed is compost or rotted leaves to add organic matter to already nutrient-rich clay soils. Always water new plantings to settle roots and eliminate air pockets.

Bulbs are the icon of fall planting. Be careful placing tulips and crocuses, which tempt deer and rabbits. All daffodils (Narcissus), however, are reliably rodent proof and you should plant some each year around Thanksgiving. Cruise garden centers for little handfuls to scatter where they’ll get some sun in winter and early spring. Edges of woodland and walkways are nice.

The best time to plant bulbs is after the first freeze in mid- to late October, when the soil has chilled to around 55 degrees. Get them in before Christmas and you’ll be okay. Plant peonies, iris and other long-lived perennials like Baptisia and Amsonia earlier when the soil is warmer to give time to establish roots before the prolonged cold of January and February.

Late summer is ideal for lifting and dividing old perennials that have begun to die out in the center. Freezing and thawing can be an issue with fickle winter days, when new rootballs heave out of the ground. Keep an eye on transplants and gently press them back to soil level as soon as possible and water as needed.

Milder temperatures welcome the lawn. Establishing sod is much easier when it can strike new roots without getting immediately zapped with the searing heat of summer. Remember you need goodly sun and a pH of 6.5 to 7 to grow turf grass, whether from seed or sod. Too acidic from lack of lime or too sweet from too much and it’s not gonna happen. Sod is the vastly more expensive choice, but chances are best over late spring or, God forbid, summer.

For established lawn, amend bare spots with compost and overseed with a reputable landscape mix of fescues (ask your local garden center). The folks at Virginia Cooperative Extension and Piedmont Master Gardeners will come visit, take a soil sample and recommend fertilizer and lime application for a small fee for their Healthy Virginia Lawn program (hvl.albemarle@vt.edu).

As the seasons change, there is a time for every purpose in the garden and a chance for redemption still.

Fall checklist

  • Plant, divide and transplant long-lived perennials
  • Plant trees and shrubs
  • Renovate lawn
  • Test and amend soil
  • Visit local meadows

Fall plants:

Bulbs: Narcissus, Allium, Siberian Squill (Scilla) and snowdrops (Galanthus) are all deer resistant; tulips, crocuses and hyacinths are not.

Lawns: Sod or seed with fescue mix

Long-lived perennials: Bearded iris, bluestar (Amsonia), false indigo (Baptisia), peony, periwinkle and Siberian iris

Seasonal bedding: Chrysanthemum, ornamental kale, pansies and violas. They’ll all need deer protection; try egg-based spray.

Container: Trees and shrubs

Wait till spring:

Broadleaf evergreens (Camellia, hollies, Osmanthus and Rhododendron)

Dogwood

Ornamental and native grassess

Woody herbs: Lavender, rosemary and thyme