September's gentle light has a way of illuminating flaws in your landscape. Yes, early autumn offers an abundance of fruits and vegetables to harvest, and many flowers keep going strong until frost, but somehow the eye is drawn to the barren space where the hollyhocks never emerged; lawn furniture, looking used and worn; that climbing rose, begging for a new trellis. It's time to embark on what I like to call the Great Fall Scavenger Hunt.
Most people obsess over their gardens in the spring, and folks at garden centers and nurseries know it. They stock up on loads of plants, tools, fertilizers and other irresistible items, well aware that we, still partially dazed with winter delirium, will obediently march out and buy tons of merchandise at premium prices. Everyone is both anxious to get his or her garden in shape immediately and willing to pay for the privilege. The wise few who exercise patience and foresight, however, can avoid the long lines and high prices in springtime by doing some homework -- and legwork -- now, when the distractions of spring and oppressive heat of summer are pretty much over.
Every year in early September I take a long walk around my property with pencil and notebook in hand, making careful note of any problem. While not exciting, careful record-keeping is critical to the garden-improvement process: In order to get the most out of the hunt, scavengers need to know exactly what items, and how many of each, they need.
Assessing the garden
So into the garden I go, paying particular attention to what has worked this year and what hasn't. I search for gaps in the perennial border, for instance, assess which portions of the yard could use additional screening or color and earmark elements of the "hardscape" -- gates, trellises, edgings, etc. -- for replacement or repair. I also stop by the tool shed and take stock of what equipment or supplies I might need. When my list is complete, I reorganize my notes into three general categories: perennials, other plants, and hardscaping and other supplies.
Next it's time, list in hand, to go bargain hunting at the local nurseries. If you haven't been to a garden center after Labor Day, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Not only are spring crowds long gone, but demand-spiked prices have fallen on many items by as much as 25 percent to 50 percent. While the selection may not be as large as it was early in the season, nursery employees and garden center owners are eager to reduce their inventories before the onset of winter. Any remaining perennials, bushes or trees will have to be put into the ground for the winter, or otherwise stored or disposed of, at great expense.
Far better to sell the stock, even at prices that are sometimes below cost. The same holds true for tools and fertilizers, many of which have a limited shelf life. Even items like pots, urns, statuary and arbors must be moved to make way for the mountains of snowblowers, shovels and Christmas paraphernalia that will soon take their places.
This seasonal change makes for a savvy gardener's paradise. Usually I concentrate on the live portion of my list first and postpone buying the remainder of the items until the weather gets colder.
Many people seem averse to planting in the fall, fretting that the trees, shrubs and perennials they buy now will merely perish over the course of the winter. On the contrary, fall planting is by and large just as successful as planting in the spring. In general, throughout most of the country, temperatures remain warm enough well into autumn, allowing the plants time to settle in, with the added benefit of several months of ample moisture that is often lacking in the late spring and early summer.
There is, however, one critical difference in choosing plants for purchase now: In the spring, the condition of the top of the plant -- the leaves and branches -- is just as important as the roots. Whether the plant lives or dies will be determined by how successfully the foliage produces the nutrients necessary to establish the plant in new ground. In the fall, though, the foliage of non-evergreens is relatively unimportant -- it's the roots that count.
While you obviously wouldn't want to choose a specimen tree with a permanent flaw such as a poor branching structure, don't worry if the leaves look a little tattered -- they'll be gone shortly anyway and come back as good as ever in the spring.
The same holds true for shrubs and perennials. What's important are the roots. Take a look inside the pot or burlap bag: The roots should appear healthy and smell fresh. If there's a scent of rot or decay, find another plant. Pot-bound plants make good choices; this is usually an indication of a healthy specimen.
Generally, I will set aside a day or so and take a tour of all the nurseries in the area. I buy whatever they have on my list that's both in decent condition and on sale. Oftentimes I will find other material that's not included on my list that is too good to pass up.
I return home with my truck loaded to the max and begin planting.
Timing is crucial in the fall, so don't procrastinate: The sooner you get the plants in the ground, the longer they will have to settle in before the onset of winter and the more successful the operation will be. Planting in the fall is the same as planting in the spring, except that once again the roots are more important than the tops. You actually want to discourage new leaf growth that in all likelihood would be killed back by the cold, and instead promote root growth.
So rather than adding a balanced fertilizer with a high nitrogen count (the first of the three numbers on fertilizer labels), concentrate on phosphorus (the middle number), which stimulates the roots. I like to scatter a handful or so of superphosphate (0-20-0) in each hole as I plant. I finish by covering the roots with earth and watering: Presto -- a new addition to the garden!