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Master Gardener Column: Plant in the fall, nature does

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Shirley Campbell

Master Gardener

What a wonderful time of the year. Fall in Texas lasts from the last 90 degree day until the first killing freeze. Cooler temperatures and decreased day length make fall an ideal time to garden. 

The fall beckons us back to the outdoors to assess our landscaping. What has survived this record summer of heat and drought, and what needs to be replaced? 

Refreshed, we migrate to nurseries and hurry back home to plant flowers, vegetables, shrubs, and trees. Landscape remodeling or renovation projects abound. Truly the fall may be the best season to plant, surpassing even the spring. 

The fall months of September through December have distinct advantages for planting compared to the spring months. Fall is a perfect time to plant container-grown trees and shrubs. Restricted root systems of these plants have ample time to recover from transplanting and spread new roots before spring growth begins.

Plant roots grow anytime the soil temperatures is 40 degrees or higher, which may occur throughout the winter in all areas but the Panhandle. During the fall and winter months, the root systems of fall-planted plants grow and become well established. When spring arrives, this expanded root system can support and take advantage of the full surge of spring growth. A well established plant can better survive the heat of summer. 

The cooler days of fall reduce overall plant stress. Most newly planted shrubs, groundcovers, and perennial flowers benefit from lower fall temperatures. There are exceptions; be careful planting small plants that are marginally cold tolerant for your area. 

Rainfall is more common in fall months, reducing the need for irrigation. Rainfall also helps dilute and flush salts from the soil. Salts may have accumulated during summer long irrigation with poor-quality water (i.e., high sodium content).

Witness how much better our gardens looked after a couple of fall rains. It’s that pure rainwater with no chemicals! Be attentive to watering newly planted trees, shrubs, etc. even through the winter months if rainfall is not adequate.

For most plants, growth and flowering are induced by fall weather conditions. Roses bloom heavily, and colors are more vivid. Shrubs and perennial flowers may put forth a fall flush of growth.

With the shorter days of fall, fall bloomers like candlestick plant, mums, Mexican bush sage, asters, and Mexican mint marigold suddenly come into bloom. 

The most important reason to garden in the fall may be a selfish one---we feel human again. Working in the garden is more pleasant in the fall.

The heat of summer is in the past. The garden appears more vibrant and beautiful. The birds are more active. 

The mosquitoes and other pest populations are retreating from the cooler weather. Many plants in a last spurt of energy are producing a high number of seeds that you may choose to save and propagate. 

There is exuberant life in the garden and a heightened intensity due to pending dormancy.

Thank goodness in Texas that winter dormancy is of such short duration. 

Also, if you are looking for plants with good fall color, now is the time to select them in the nursery. Take advantage of the clearance sales and auctions offered by your local nurseries and garden centers. 

For the skeptical, I urge you to take your cue from nature.

Here in Texas, many plants depend on winter root growth for a head start on spring growth. So should you.

For more information on proper planting techniques for trees and shrubs and a recommended list of plant materials for our area of Texas, contact the Ellis County Master Gardeners at www.ECMGA.com or call or e-mail your horticulture questions to us at Ellis-tx@tamu.edu. 

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