Nature’s schedule is always interesting to observe—it pays no mind to our calendar. The trees filled up with webworms early this year, and yet current warm temperatures are pushing fall back. Precipitation also plays a part in when the seasons change, with more rain causing plants to go dormant earlier than usual.
Fall is a great time of year to plant deciduous trees—but not in all plant hardiness zones. Fall plantings at lower latitudes and elevations are usually successful because plants have time to become established before harsh winter temperatures arrive. This prevents frost heaving which pushes the root ball upwards as the ground freezes. At higher elevations, however, winter comes early allowing for almost one month less of root growing time. We recommend planting in the spring or before September for gardens in cooler climates.
Soon, we will gather leaves which are just beginning to fall and store to keep them dry until shredded and placed back in the landscape. Shredding leaves makes it easier to spread them farther and to get them in between the plants. Leaves are great as a mulch as they get broken down by earthworms into organic matter. Over time this layer slowly works its way into the soil below and builds upwards as well, creating a rich environment for organisms valuable to plants such as beneficial fungi and bacteria which work with plant roots to transport nutrients. This is what we refer to as living soil, which can also be created with compost (worm castings) to speed up nature’s process.
It is not just N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) that makes for healthy plants. We are currently experimenting with granular and liquid additives of beneficial bacteria, probiotics and mycorrhizae such as Espoma and Biotone. A relatively new material called Biochar is proving to benefit plant growth and health in propagation soils as well as plants already in the ground. We used it in potting soil and saw significantly more growth. Biochar is charcoal-like material that provides a home for organisms which then associate with nearby roots and “feed” the plant chemically.
One exciting species we recently planted is Castenea dentata hybrid American chestnut given to us by the American Chestnut Foundation. We placed six of these in various locations in the Core Park, some intentionally close to wild chestnut trees that are, of course, experiencing blight. Our location is a great proving ground for resistance due to the population of blighted trees already on the property.
We have been installing new plants to enhance the quantity and variety in our garden rooms. It is always fun to try new varieties of native plants that have recently entered the market but best to give a plant a few years to settle in before making judgement on its value. Remember, the first calendar year the plant is establishing its root system, so top growth is minimal until the second year. That is why watering the first year is essential. We have been using a product called Superthrive for watering plants before they go into the ground. This supplement contains Vitamin B as well as other ingredients that give the plant what it needs to get through transplant shock and begin producing root and shoot growth. Typically, we only use Superthrive once, but it can be used more often if needed. Amendments do not have to be incorporated into the soil prior to planting, and in fact they are not even recommended for trees and shrubs. It has been proven that the plants do no better long term when amendments are used. Instead, in the fall and winter months we top-dress with amendments like composted horse manure (stall refuse), or for homeowners Daddy Pete’s cow manure. This is applied on top of the root zone (inside of the dripline) at one to four inches thick. Worms then incorporate this into the soil over time, producing good results.
No matter what your garden calls you to do, this is a wonderful time to simply be in it. Make note of the cooler air on your skin and the crisper days opening up the vistas and allowing those fall colors to appear just a bit brighter. Being outside during all seasons is nourishing to the soul, but spending time tending your gardens this time of year not only prepares the plants, it also helps you transition into the season of dormancy.