Summer’s tomatoes are plumping on the vine, and the pears in the orchard are ripening to full. Day lengths shorten. Already the birdsong of early summer has been replaced by the drone of katydids and cicadas. Summer is on the wane, and the first crisp apples and crisp breezes of autumn beckon.
Early fall is the best time of year for planting woody perennials (plants that live for longer than two years). There are three major reasons for this:
- Cooler temperatures, especially at night, reduce water loss in the soil via evaporation. An evenly moist soil environment is crucial to the establishment of a healthy root system for a freshly transplanted plant. The tiny rootlet filaments that absorb the majority of a plant’s water and minerals are fragile and easily damaged, particularly when the plant has undergone the shock of being dug up or de-potted and relocated. Moreover, in order for the plant to truly succeed in the landscape, those rootlets must successfully bond with native mycorrhizae, the symbiotic fungi that extend most plants’ effective water and nutrient absorption range tremendously. Cool, damp conditions favor the growth of these mycelial networks, which in turn benefit the plants.
- As the season turns towards the cold months, perennial plants alter their priorities from above-ground growth (leaves, stems, fruit, etc.) to the business of building a sturdy root zone. For many herbaceous (non-woody) perennials, the roots are all that survive the winter, slowly metabolizing the summer’s stored solar energy. For trees and bushes, above-ground growth stops entirely, while below-ground growth slows down considerably. There is a spike in root growth just before the onset of the cool season, and just after the frost breaks in the springtime. If the plant is placed in the ground around these times, it can establish itself much more quickly and thoroughly than it would in a season in which it would be dividing its energy between leaves, flowers, woody growth, and establishing a connection with the mycorrhizal network. The roots will continue to grow slowly over the winter, allowing a vibrant flush of stem and leaf growth as soon as the weather breaks in the springtime.
- Working in cool weather is more pleasant for human beings. Refreshing breezes, fewer biting insects, and the urgency of enjoying the last warmish days of the year are all incentives for the home gardener to spend as much time outside as possible. Garden tasks that would be odious in the heat of summertime become pleasant when performed in the autumn. Setting up a newly transplanted tree or shrub for success requires patience and a bit of elbow grease. The temptation during hot days is to skimp on the size of the hole dug and the perimeter of soil loosened. In the fall, it is much easier to persevere and see that the job is done properly.
Take advantage of the coming chills of autumn and begin planning your fruit orchard or berry patch now, while the lingering warmth of the summer persists. As soon as the scent of woodsmoke fills the evening air and clouds of breath illuminate the brisk morning, you can be ready with your entrenching tools to make the land ready for botanical abundance.