“Autumn is no season for defiance.” Those words, taken from Michael Pollan’s book on gardening, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, suggest that this is the season for gardeners to be at one with the steady slide into dormancy and winter. Pollan, a regular contributor to The New York Times, and a New England-based gardener, is one of this country’s most poetic garden writers. In his native region, winter is a hard inevitability. In Texas, however, winter can often be a relatively gentle affair with autumn serving as its splendid overture. We hardly feel defiant when we step out into those first cool mornings knowing that at long last, the dampening blanket of summer has been lifted.
The change in temperature makes time spent in the garden more pleasant, but it also serves as a reminder that it is time to get busy. While our Yankee cousins are bracing for winter, we should be pulling out our shovels and spades. Autumn is the ideal planting time in Central Texas for all cold-hardy forms of trees and shrubs. Even though the nighttime temperatures are cooling off, the ground is still warm enough to encourage new root growth. Trees and shrubs planted now will get a head start on the spring growing season and will be better equipped to survive their first Texas summer.
Usually, at this point I would dive in and start recommending what to plant. However, we have so many good plants to choose from, I thought it would be more helpful to provide some detailed instruction about how you should go about planting. There are two basic ways of thinking about this: you will either be “spot planting,” tucking a single plant into existing beds or lawn spaces, or you will be preparing entirely new beds for large-scale plantings of multiple plants.
When spot planting trees or shrubs the planting hole should be dug as wide as possible, but no deeper than the container that the plant is in. And when I say wide I mean it—the more the soil is loosened around the plant the further the roots are likely to travel in the coming months. If you have the energy to dig a hole that is six or eight feet wide for a five-gallon plant—do it! And remember to dig an “ugly” hole, one with ragged sides that will more easily accommodate root penetration into dense soils.
Once the hole is dug and the plant is situated to its best advantage, it will be time to backfill. When you start to backfill the hole around the plant, use only the existing soil at first. Fill in about one third of the hole and then water the soil. Then backfill another third and gently firm all of the soil, trying to squeeze out air pockets. Then water again. Once the water has been absorbed into the hole, mix some compost with the remainder of the existing soil and top off the hole, being sure to thoroughly water and firm the soil one more time. Finally, a good top dressing of mulch will discourage weeds and help to protect the root zone from the potential of extreme cold.
Before you begin to create a new planting bed, remember that you will need a good source of organic matter, meaning compost. But don’t get too carried away—many of our best landscape plants are natives that need excellent drainage. If you intend to use these plants, be sure to purchase compost that has been blended with sand, granite sand, or screened granite.
Creating a new bed is usually a five-step process: remove any weeds or turf (and their roots); till or loosen the existing soil; add a generous amount of blended sand and compost, then till to blend that in with the existing soil; add soil amendments like bone meal and soil sulfur and till again; and then, finally, rake the bed smooth. Mulch should be used but is best applied after planting. Some folks recommend letting the bed settle-in, or mellow, before planting, and if you have the luxury of time, I’d say this is a good idea. However, in the fall, I think the more time your plants spend in the ground before the first frost, the better.
Lots of folks ask me about fertilizing their newly planted shrubs and trees. My advice is to stick with the simple organic regimen outlined above. However, feel free to use gentle products aimed at stimulating the microorganisms in the soil like Medina Soil Activator. When spring rolls around, you can up the ante by adding fertilizers like fish emulsion, liquid seaweed, and agricultural molasses to your mix.
One final point about fall planting—this is not the time to prune trees or shrubs, especially those just being put into the ground. Pruning now will encourage tender new growth, which can be burned off with the first freeze. This usually won’t kill an established plant, just set it back, but a new plant could be killed. The best time for pruning will vary from one plant species to the next but, as a general rule, it is best to wait until late February for evergreens and early February for deciduous plants.
Autumn is harvest time in the Northeast. Here, in Texas it is time to plant. Let’s show our “thanks” for the gentler weather by putting down roots for the coming year.
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