Column: Why now is the time to add fall plants
Plants love the perfect mornings, cool days and warm nights of fall. Autumn weather is perfect for planting because all-nurturing humidity in the air and in the soil is up and there is far less drying wind. Moderate fall weather also greatly reduces the risk of transplant shock. All are reasons why fall plantings are more successful than spring plantings.
So why is spring the most popular time of the year to plant? It's because after we gardeners have been pent up indoors for many weeks baking cookies and sipping tea, come the first warm days of March we must get out and get our hands dirty. Spring weather, however, is not very encouraging to newly set out plants. Violent temperature swings between day and night, cold soil temperatures,
and our dry prevailing mountain winds all create an environment that is hard on new plants. It is an environment that makes it a real challenge for plants to thrive in spring.
Plants are just like people in that both have ideal internal temperatures at which they experience good health. It's common knowledge that 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit is the human body's ideal temperature. The internal temperature of plants is 70.5 degrees F. and everything that plants do is an attempt to keep themselves at this comfortable temperature. This is the reason, for example, why plant leaves change their angle throughout the day. They want to either soak up more sun for warmth or to cool off by angling away from the sun.
Obviously, it's easier for plants to maintain their desired internal temperatures when they are dealing with fall's moderate climate. It offers a less stressful environment for thriving; so, once again, we gardeners are shown why fall is the best time to plant.
Fall plantings are very successful as long as you remember one thing: you must water twice each month throughout the winter or plants will suffer severe damage. We have nice days even in January, so pick two of these days each month and water your fall plantings. Come spring you will have healthy plants waking from their dormancy.
The very first landscape plants to announce the arrival of fall are Virginia creepers, Parthenocissus quinquefolia. These super hardy vines grow wild throughout the mountains of Arizona and naturalize well in local landscapes. Their claim to fame starts now with brilliant red foliage. Virginia creepers do well as hardy ground covers, especially to retain hillsides, but I like to use them to soften fence lines or as a garden accent growing up a metal trellis. This year's crop of Virginia creeper is tall, full and just beginning to show its vibrant fall color. The plants are absolutely stunning at the garden center right now.
Aspen is another fall crop that is looking really great. This fall has flushed nice new growth and it's an impressive crop that just arrived at the garden center. Aspens grow wild through the higher elevations of Arizona, but they do especially well when placed on drip irrigation, which really bodes well for aspens used in landscaping.
Straight columns of shimmering leaves protrude from aspen's snow-white bark revealing classic Arizona golden fall foliage. I love the Latin name for aspen because it describes the plant so well, Populus tremuloides, or trembling leaves poplar. The leaves literally dance with the slightest breeze and bring drama to the landscape. This tree is great as a property line divider, as an accent to ponds, or used as a street tree. Each fall garden centers offer the best selection of aspens.
As a matter of fact, autumn is the only time of year that you will find a wide selection of fall plants at your favorite garden center. Mums are a classic example. In spring you might find one color of mum at the garden center and it appears as a green blob emerging from winter. But in fall there are hundreds of mums in dozens of colors, five different sizes, and all in bloom at once! In my opinion fall is the only time to add mums to a landscape.
The point being, for those of you from tropical climates like California or you gardeners 'transplanted' from the deserts, this is an ideal time to add fall colors to your landscapes.
All plants are actively growing now, especially at the root level. Roots soak up as many nutrients as possible and store them for winter consumption. Before fall ends it is very important to feed everything in the landscape with a product like fertilome's "Winterizer." This cool season plant food allows plants to store up as much fat, i.e. starches, in the root structure as possible before the onset of winter. If you provide this pre-winter feeding, you will have healthier plants that push noticeably more growth and flowers next spring.
If you are a gardener who wants in-depth teaching like that offered in a university setting, you are in luck. I am teaching an entire series of garden classes at Yavapai College. These two-hour classes take place most Monday mornings and are full of interaction, examples and practical local gardening advice that really works. The next classes scheduled are "Landscape Principles Made Easy," "Gardening for Newcomers," "Container Gardens Made Beautiful." For exact dates of these classes, the topics of others, and cost and registration info, call Yavapai College, 717-7755. Just say that you want to sign up for Ken Lain's garden classes. I guarantee you'll be a better gardener afterward.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Ken Lain, owner of Watters Garden Center in Prescott, is a master gardener and certified nursery professional who has gardened extensively throughout Yavapai County.