The Great Fall Scavenger Hunt

There're bargains galore to be found in the Great Fall Scavenger Hunt – if you follow a few essential tips.

If you’re like me, right about now you are casting a fairly critical eye around your landscape. Of course there are still all those wonderful fruits and vegetables to harvest, and many flowers are still going strong, but September is also the perfect time for pointing out every single flaw in your garden: that space where the hollyhocks never emerged — barren and empty; the old lawn furniture; looking pretty used and worn; the long, open line along the road, just crying out for a privacy planting; that climbing rose – begging for a new trellis. Now that the heat and distractions of the summer are pretty much over, it the perfect time to begin what I like to call the Great Fall Scavenger Hunt.

Most people think about gardening in the spring, and garden centers and nurseries know it. They stock up on loads of plants, tools, fertilizers and other items, and we all, still partially dazed by winter delirium, faithfully march out and purchase tons of merchandise at premium prices. Often times in fact, people get into bidding wars over a particularly pretty specimen or the services of an especially talented contractor. Everyone’s anxious to get their garden in immediately, and willing to pay for the privilege. However, with a little planning and foresight, you can avoid the long lines and high prices of the springtime by doing your homework, and legwork, now.

This is where the Great Fall Scavenger Hunt comes in. Every year in early September, I take a long walk around the property with pencil and notebook in hand, carefully noting down any problem. September is the perfect time for this, because what you see now in your garden is by and large what you’ll have next year, and its easy to notice any deficiencies. While not the most exciting of pursuits, careful notation is critical to the process: In order to get the most out of the hunt, you need to know exactly what and how many you need. So into the garden I go, paying particular attention to what has worked, and what hasn’t. I look to see where there are gaps in the perennial border, for instance; what portions of the yard could use additional screening or color; what elements of the hardscape –gates, trellises, edgings etc. are in need of addition or repair; what areas of the lawn are looking tired or underfed. 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 four general categories: 1) perennials, 2) other plants, and 3) hardscaping, and 4) maintenance supplies.

Next it’s time, list in hand, to visit the local nurseries to see what bargains you can find. If you haven’t been to garden center in the autumn, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Not only are spring crowds gone, but you’ll find prices on many items 25-50% lower than the last time you were there. While the selection may not be as complete as it was earlier in the season, nurserymen and garden center owners are eager to reduce their inventories before the onset of winter. Any perennials, bushes or trees remaining will have to either be healed into the ground for the winter, otherwise stored – or worse, disposed of at great expense. Far better to sell the stock, even at prices that are sometimes below cost. The same holds true for fertilizers, tools and chemicals. Many of these products have a limited shelf life, and even if they don’t, all must be moved to make way for the mountains of snow blowers, shovels, and Christmas paraphernalia that are soon to follow. This seasonal change makes for a savvy gardener’s paradise. Usually I concentrate on the live portion of my list first, in the early part of the season, and then worry about the remainder of the items as the weather gets colder. While its quite cozy getting a bargain on an arbor or fertilizer while shopping indoors on a cold, rainy late October day, hunting for plants outside in the wet isn’t much fun, and I try to finish up the plant part of my search while the weather’s still pleasant.

Many people seem adverse to planting in the fall, thinking 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, over most of the country, temperatures are warm well into the autumn, allowing the plants time to settle in, with the added benefit of several months of ample moisture 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 top of the plant — the condition of the leaves and branches — is just as important as the roots for success. Whether the plant lives or dies will be determined by how successfully the foliage produces the food required for the coming winter, and healthy foliage is important.

In the fall, though, the foliage of non-evergreens is relatively unimportant — it’s the roots that count. (Evergreens are a little different — see the note below.) While you obviously wouldn’t want to choose specimen tree with a permanent flaw such as a bad branching structure (at least one you couldn’t fix by pruning), if the leaves look a little tattered, don’t worry about it – they’ll be gone shortly anyway. The same holds true for shrubs and perennials. What’s far more 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. Plants that are pot-bound are perfect ; this is usually an indication of a healthy specimen.

Generally I will set aside a day or so, and take a tour of all of the nurseries in the locale. I purchase whatever they have on my list that’s both in decent condition, and on sale. Often times I will find other material that not included on my list that is too good to pass up, and I’ll take that too. The somewhat random nature of the hunt is part of the appeal. Usually I return home loaded to the gills, and begin planting. Timing is essential to the operation, for the sooner you get the plants in the ground, the longer they will have to settle in before the 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 (that’s the first number of the three on all 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, watering, and presto — a new addition to the garden. If you are planting large trees or evergreens, you probably want to drive a stake or two, and secure the plant with something relatively soft that won’t wound the bark; old nylons or sections of garden hose are perfect for this, but specialty tree staking equipment is also available.  While I don’t generally recommend staking plants in the spring (studies have shown that trees do better in the long run without stakes) the winds of winter are often quite strong and recently planted specimens with tiny root balls and large tops are no match for fierce gusts.

So this fall, as the gentle autumn light begins to creep over your garden, don’t be lulled in pleasant repose. A fun and exciting quest awaits. All that’s required is a little legwork, an inquisitive nose, and a spare afternoon or two. Your reward will be a far better garden next year, at far less cost. Sounds like a bargain to me!

End Note: Tips for Planting Evergreens in the Fall

Like their deciduous cousins, evergreens are excellent candidates for fall planting. Unlike their leave-losing relatives however, when choosing an evergreen for fall planting, its important to make sure that both the roots and the leaves are in good shape. While some damage to the foliage is permissible — after all the plants been hanging around the nursery all summer and you are getting a great bargain — the majority of the foliage needs to be intact and in good condition. The branching structure should be well-formed, and no wounds should be apparent on the bark. The roots should also be fresh and viable. Evergreens are planted just like other plants, but in colder climates its wise to take an additional step after planting. On any sunny day in the fall when the temperature is above 40 degrees, I like to spray the foliage with Wiltpruf®. This organic substance helps to prevent winterkill due to dehydration, a common problem among newly planted evergreens.

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