Fall is a Great Time to Plant Flowers and Shrubs
Let’s cover some general planting rules of (green) thumb.
Time of Year
Generally speaking, the ideal planting season falls between spring and autumn. In the spring, the weather is usually mild, and there’s plenty of clean-up work to be done; it’s around this time when nurseries start filling up with color. You also have the whole summer ahead of you to create a thriving garden.
Fall is another popular planting period. Soil is typically still warm, which allows roots to grow until the ground potentially freezes. There’s also less urgency to keep plants well watered; things don’t grow as actively. In some climates—like in the desert—the summers may be too brutal for plants, so fall acts as a type of spring.
Pro Tip: The window for fall planting generally ends six weeks before your area gets a hard frost and the ground freezes.
Fall is a great season for planting hardy trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and bulbs!
Here are some great reasons why:
Temperatures are more moderate, which means less moisture loss through leaves and less plant stress. Continue watering as needed.
Weeds are less competition for new plantings. Annual weeds should be removed now before they go to seed. Perennial weeds can be killed off more effectively with weed killers in the Fall than in the Spring.
Giant rosettes of frilly leaves in lavender, rose, white, and creamy yellow make ornamental kale’s favorite additions to the winter garden. Because these showy cabbage relatives tolerate cold weather and can hold their brilliant color all the way into spring, they’re ideal for display on porches, patios, beside entryways, or for massing in garden beds. They grow 1 to 2 feet tall. Plant kale in full sun or light shade, and do so as soon as possible so heads develop fully; the color will intensify in the cold. Water regularly and feed every other week with a dilute liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion. Here, four smooth-leaved ‘Sunset’ kale plants anchor the corners of a plum-colored square container while crinkly purple kale springs from the center.
Like their siblings, the violas, when it comes to cool-season blooms, pansies (Viola bicolor) are the hardest-working flowers in the game. These low-growing plants (6 to 10 inches tall) are top sellers year after year for good reason. They deliver lots of bright blooms over a long period, come in a huge range of colors ― both solids and bi-colors ― and keep going through the winter in much of the West. (‘Dynamite Blotch’ is pictured here.) The large-flowered, faced varieties may catch your eye first in nurseries. But when planted en masse, non faced, single-colored varieties often make a bigger statement.
Most primroses bloom in spring or summer, but English primrose (as well as fairy primroses and Chinese primroses) are also excellent choices for winter color. Circular flowers arise either alone or in clusters from a foliage rosette. English primrose (pictured here) comes in nearly every color and grows 8 to 12 inches high and 9 inches wide. Primroses can take full sun in cooler climates, part to full shade otherwise. All need regular water. Here, yellow primroses and ranunculus fill the hanging basket in the foreground; white primroses fill the basket behind.
Daisy-like calendula (aka pot marigold; Calendula officinalis) provides sunny color from late fall through spring in mild-winter climates and is long-lasting in a vase. Choose classic orange and bright yellow, or opt for subtler shades of apricot, cream, and soft yellow. Branching plants are 1 to 2 feet high and 1 to 1½ feet wide and look great as masses of color or in a container. Calendula plants take full sun and moderate water. They will tolerate many soils as long as they have good drainage. Remove the spent flowers to prolong bloom, or allow the seed heads to form at the end of the summer and resow in early spring.
Candytuft plants grow 8 to 12 inches high and wide; their narrow, shiny dark green leaves look great all year, but their colorful flowers will steal the show from fall through spring. Long-stem varieties are carried on stems long enough to cut for bouquets, but dwarf varieties are a darling addition to any garden. Choose the ‘Fairy’ series (pictured), or for white flowers, choose ‘Autumn Beauty,’ or ‘Autumn Snow.’ They bloom in spring and again in fall. Plants thrive in full sun or part shade and do their best with regular water. Candytuft needs well-drained soil and should be sheared lightly after bloom to stimulate new growth.
Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’
This bushy perennial grows about 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide and thrives planted in full sun. Place it at the back of the border where the 6-inch long flower spikes with tubular blooms can arch above lower bedding plants. These fall flowers have moderate water needs.
Sedum ‘Autumn Fire’
The blooms of this low-water succulent provide rich late-season color. Flower spikes form above fleshy, grey-green leaves and blossoms change color from dusty pink to deep copper in fall. Grows 1 to 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide in full sun or part shade. These fall flowers grow well in containers.
Echinacea ‘PowWow Wild Berry’ (Coneflower)
This fall flower is a late summer favorite for color, Echinacea (a.k.a. coneflowers) form dozens of daisy-like blooms with spiny orange centers. ‘PowWow Wild Berry’ has particularly deep raspberry-colored petals and re-blooms abundantly through late fall. Plants reach 2 feet tall and 1 foot wide and thrive planted in full sun with low to moderate water.
When to Plant Trees and Shrubs
Spring and fall are ideal for planting trees and shrubs. Deciduous trees, including dogwood, magnolia, and oak, do well when planted in spring, as they need longer days to adjust to transplant and concentrate on root growth.
Evergreen shrubs—such as boxwood and rhododendron—are susceptible to winter damage and will benefit from spring planting, as well. Conifer trees (like pine, fir, and juniper), which have needle or scale-like leaves present throughout the winter months, prefer warmer soil for transplant and should be planted in late summer to early fall.
- Spring planting: dogwood, magnolia, oak, boxwood, and rhododendron
- Fall planting: pine, fir, and juniper trees
Pro Tip: Nurseries typically have the best selection during spring, so that may affect your planting schedule. Regardless of the timing, once you select trees and shrubs for planting, you’ll need to provide regular water during the first few months. While this is a time commitment, it’s very important to water deeply as opposed to a daily sprinkle from the hose.
Small trees likely need 2 to 3 gallons of water each time you irrigate, while larger varieties may need closer to 6 gallons. Apply water directly to the root zone—not the leaves or branches.