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Transplant Those Plants Now
by Gene E. Bush       #Advice   #Bulbs   #Fall   #Shrubs











Lilium canadense, is one of the best native lilies. Transplant it near a path to admire the details inside the blooms.


Nurseries and garden centers overflow with color on opening day in the spring. They woke the plants up early and grew them on to full foliage and bloom placing temptation before all the gardeners with cabin fever.

My wife and I are as susceptible to gardening siren calls as any other gardener, but over the years we have learned that there are plants best transplanted in the fall. September, October, and early November are prime months for bringing perennials, bulbs, trees, and shrubs into the garden.

Better Weather
Our soils in later winter into spring are often soggy. Over the winter we normally receive our rains to build up reserves for summer heat and mini-droughts. Between the rain and temperatures running up and down like a yo-yo, I find that spring is not my favorite time to work in the garden. I do, but I prefer fall planting when the soils are dry, and the temperatures are cool.

Easier Maintenance
I see little common sense in making life difficult. If there is an easier way to go about a task, I appreciate knowing. When purchasing a plant in full foliage and bloom in the spring it will need care until the roots can get established. The new plant needs attention all spring and well into the summer. When transplanting in the fall, you can water it once, mulch it, and walk away.

The large toad shade (Trillium cuneatum) is good for the woodland or shade garden. It gently self-seeds over time.

Stronger Roots
Come September, October, and November, plants are either dormant or going to sleep, so there is less concern for root disturbance. Plants perform better when planted after the tops have stopped active growth or died back. With proper soil preparation and mulching the plants hardly know they have been transplanted; they simply awaken in their new home next spring. Roots have had a chance to settle in during the winter months. When first foliage and then bloom is produced in a fall-planted transplant, the roots are fully operative. New feeder roots are able to take up the nutrients needed reducing or eliminating stress.

Plant Bulbs, Tubers, and Corms Now
Catalogs selling spring-blooming bulbs begin filling our mailboxes in late spring with early order discounts, and the deliveries continue almost until planting time. In most cases, the bulbs will also arrive in your mailbox too early for immediate transplanting.

When your bulbs arrive, inspect them for damage in shipment, dried-out material, or rot. I leave the packets in the shipping box, remove all packing material, and place the box in the refrigerator until the proper planting time.

Wait for the soil to cool down before planting the bulbs. Often bulbs planted into warm soil will break dormancy, coming into active growth at the beginning of winter. This causes unsightly damage to the foliage and may kill the bud containing the bloom.

Work the soil where you intend to plant your bulbs in early or mid-fall. The actual planting of the bulbs should take place until around Thanksgiving. Since the weather can quickly turn to cold and wet around this time, do not put off preparing the planting site in advance.


Campanula ‘Silver Bells’ is a bit of a wanderer in good soil, but the large bell-shaped blooms and foliage form a nice background to hybrid lilies.

Ephemerals Love Fall Planting
“Ephemeral” means fleeting or of short duration. The term when applied to plants refers to early spring bloomers that, in general, are dormant by the middle of July. Trillium spp. would be a good example. The tiny dwarf snow trillium (Trillium nivale) blooms first until the middle of March, sets seed, and then its foliage disappears by the Fourth of July.

Because ephemerals awaken so early in the season, fall planting is the only practical time to transplant them. Few gardeners are able to work the soil during February or March. The most important reason, however, is their growth habit. During late summer and early fall many of these plants (mostly woodland) form buds that will become stems, roots, or blooms. If they are fall planted, then they have the best chance of settling in and putting new roots into the surrounding soil.

Plant Perennials, Too
Late spring and early summer bloomers, often placed in the garden the last of April through the end of May, will have a difficult time surviving and thriving when spring planted. First of all, the roots are disturbed when you remove them from their pots, and then again when you spread the roots into the surrounding soil when transplanting.

Feeder roots are broken and bruised, which disrupts the flow of nutrients and moisture. The plants have little time to repair and establish new roots before July arrives. July, August, and September bring heat, high humidity, and low precipitation. Surviving all this disruption and stress is a lot to ask of a plant in full foliage and bloom.

Perennials that bloom from August through November are the plants I prefer placing in the garden during spring while they are either dormant or just awakening. That gives them around five to six months of growth before they are expected to bloom.

So, try planting spring- and summer-blooming perennials in the fall.

Rhododendron ‘Lemon Lights’ is a hybrid deciduous azalea forming a tidy open shrub.

Fall is for Trees and Shrubs
September and October are my favored months for planting deciduous shrubs and trees. Much of the literature on planting trees and shrubs says “any time you can work the ground,” especially for balled and burlapped or containerized plants. While I certainly could plant in the spring, my preference is for fall.

After trees and shrubs drop their foliage, no energy goes into foliage production or maintenance, which draws moisture from the roots. While the part above ground is asleep, the roots remain awake, and are in active growth any time the soil is 45 F or above. You can gain eight or nine months simply by fall planting a shrub or tree.

Over the winter, the shrubs can settle into the soil and have new feeder roots out when spring arrives. This causes much less stress.

After planting I water well and mulch around the root system, but not against the trunk or stems. When mulch is placed against bark it can cause rot from excess moisture and no air circulation, and can create a hiding place for insects and rodents to overwinter and feed. Normally you don’t have to water again until the next summer unless there is a prolonged dry spell. Never fertilize when planting; wait until just before spring growth begins.

Fall Planting is Simply Easier
Whenever possible, my preference is to let Mother Nature do most of the work. She usually does a better job. Be it wildflowers, perennials, bulbs, or shrubs, after planting I water well, mulch to prevent winter heaving and to maintain moisture, and then pretty much forget the plants or bulbs until spring.


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Gene E. Bush.


Posted: 09/28/17   RSS | Print


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