Fall may provide an abundance of fall color, but did you know it’s also one of the best times of year to get new plants in the ground? Learn what plants generate great foliage this time of year.
Whether you want to add instant color or year-round pizzazz to your landscape, autumn is a great time to plant most trees, shrubs and perennials, right up until the ground freezes.
“As long as a tree is potted, it can be planted in fall,” explains Jon Carlson, owner of J. Carlson Growers, 8938 Newburg Road, Rockford. “Some trees don’t like being dug up and moved in the fall, but anything already potted will be just fine.” Trees are dormant in fall and will “wake up” in their new springtime location ready to grow, if care is taken during the planting process. The spring snowmelt provides sufficient moisture to get them off to a good start.
“Fall is really a better time to plant than summer,” says Scott Gensler, of Gensler Gardens, which has locations at 102 Orth Road in Loves Park, Ill., and 8631 11th St. in Davis Junction, Ill. “Roots don’t grow their best in the summer and you have to worry constantly about watering in warm weather. I personally do all my planting in fall because it saves a lot of time I would otherwise spend watering new plants. Time is the most valuable asset for a lot of us.”
Instant Cheer: Fall Blooms
For immediate curb appeal, it’s hard to beat cheery chrysanthemums (mums) and asters. Mums come in hues of yellow, purple and red, and most asters are purple, pink or white. Place mums in pots near your front door and keep them watered for a pop of season-long color.
Or, plant hardy varieties in the ground and hope for the best. Both asters and mums are better planted in spring, though it’s not always easy to find them in nurseries then.
“Even if you do everything right with planting, there’s only about a 50-50 chance that hardy mums planted in the fall will survive the winter,” says Gensler. It’s best to plant them earlier in the season to give them time to establish roots before frost, he says. Keep them watered until the ground freezes and mulch to protect roots through the winter.
Even if you view mums as one-season wonders, their color will provide long-lasting pleasure late into fall.
Ornamental cabbage and kale are popular in fall containers and landscapes, too. Bred for good looks, not flavor, these beauties stay attractive long past frost.
“These will look nice all the way into 10-degree weather, right up to the first snowfall,” says Gensler.
Nothing provides instant autumn charm like a grouping of bright orange pumpkins, and Gensler grows 30 acres of them. They last longer uncarved; if you want faces without the carving mess, use paint or marker to decorate them.
As Halloween passes and Thanksgiving approaches, Gensler assembles a variety of porch pots for instant, easy cheer.
“We pride ourselves on using premium evergreens in our porch pots,” says Gensler. “We treat them as florist arrangements and soak everything before we make them up. Most people put them out right before Thanksgiving and they look good all the way through mid-March. When the holidays are over, just remove the holiday decorations and they still look pretty. They’re elegant, longlasting and as easy as it gets. There’s no work to them.”
Gensler also stocks fresh-cut Christmas trees with all the trimmings. The stores don’t sell potted Christmas trees, though.
“That’s just too hard to do successfully in the Midwest,” Gensler explains. “The temperature shift from a warm house to cold winter weather is too hard on living trees.”
Lovely Trimmings: Shrubs
If you’d like to add autumn color to your landscape that returns year after year, look to trees, shrubs, perennial plants and ornamental grasses known for their showy fall habits.
“Fall is a great time to choose these plants because you can see what they look like right now, after a growing season,” says Gensler. “Keep in mind, though, that potted plants in the greenhouse lose their leaves about two weeks sooner than they will when planted in your yard.”
Gensler is a fan of ornamental grasses like Switchgrass ‘panicum,’ which is very hardy, or red ‘Norseland Shenandoah,’ less hardy but more showy. Clumps of ornamental grass provide landscape interest in all seasons and sway gracefully in the breeze.
Carlson gets a kick out of Prairie Dropseed grass because “It smells like buttered popcorn when you walk by it.”
For bright fall color, Burning Bush, Viburnum, Sweetspire and the red-stemmed Dogwood are among Midwest favorites.
“Be sure to read tags to learn what the attributes of the plants are in various seasons,” says Gensler. “For example, some plants will add not only fall color to your landscape, but also spring blossoms and winter berries that attract wildlife.”
Gensler points to Korean Spice Viburnum as an all-around nice shrub. “Its foliage looks great in three seasons, bright red in fall, with pretty flowers in springtime.”
For a touch of year-round greenery, which is oh-so welcome in deep winter, evergreens like boxwood are hard to beat. “A boxwood is so versatile – it can be most any size and shape you want it to be,” Gensler says.
Carlson specializes in growing conifers – which are defined as cone-bearing trees with evergreen needles or scale-like leaves. They enhance every landscape by adding year-round green/blue color and interesting shapes and textures, from the fluffy-looking, long-needled white pine to the dense and cone-shaped blue spruce.
Carlson grows many variations of balsam, cypress, cedar, juniper, larch, redwood, pine, yew, arborvitae, hemlock and spruce conifers, each bringing a unique personality to the garden, and many in “weeping” forms.
Majesty in the Sky: Trees
With so many ash trees disappearing right now because of infestations of Emerald Ash Borer, it’s important to replace them with other tree species.
“There are a lot of good choices, but it’s always important to consider the planting space before you choose,” says Carlson. “Don’t plant a tree in a space it will outgrow. By doing that, you’re cutting its lifespan short or dooming it to a lot of hacking and pruning. There are all kinds of trees well-suited to your growing space.”
By the same token, when you’re trying to fill a space quickly, think twice before choosing super fast-growing trees, says Carlson.
“Sometimes, faster-growing trees are less sturdy, and just less attractive in shape,” he says. If you want a larger tree fast, consider buying a good-quality tree that’s been growing for many years already.
“This is the one area of life where you can buy time,” says Carlson. “If you want to buy 10 years of growth on a tree, we can accommodate it.” When live trees are harvested, Carlson adds 10 inches of soil to the root ball for every 1 inch of trunk diameter, to enssure a successful transplant.
Because nearly any size tree can be moved, tree quality is more important than growth speed. For example, the Autumn Blaze maple grows faster than the Red Sunset maple, but Carlson intensely dislikes it.
“The Autumn Blaze is a hybrid of Silver Maple and Red Maple,” he says. “It has a messy, brittle form that doesn’t hold its own during storms and just looks lousy when the leaves are down,” he explains. “The Red Sunset, or the Indian Summer maple, on the other hand, each have a much more attractive form that doesn’t require much maintenance. Just pop it into the ground and water it, and the shape should continue to be nice, if we’ve done our job right here.”
Ornamental pear trees are wildly popular in our area because they offer something for every season; spring flowers, glossy green summer leaves, bright fall foliage and a nice cone shape that’s attractive even after leaves fall. As with maples, however, selecting the right variety makes a huge difference.
“One of the earliest ornamental pears was the Bradford, which is still sold, but it’s a terrible tree,” says Carlson. “It’s messy and brittle. Then came the Aristocrat, which was bred to have a narrower space between the branches, making it much more sturdy. Then came the Chanticleer, which is even better.”
Crabapple trees have a similar story. Dependable newer ones include the Firebird and Cardinal; for something different, try a Cinderella crabapple, which produces golden fruit in the fall, rather than traditional red.
“If you want to know how a crabapple is going to do, check the leaves in summertime,” Carson says. “Are they yellow and falling off? Are there a lot of suckers growing around the base of the tree? Those with fewer suckers will be less work for you to maintain.”
If there’s sufficient space for them to spread out, regal-looking oak trees are wonderful to behold, including Swamp, Sawtooth, Red, Scarlet, Shingle, Chinkapin, Pin, White and Burr varieties. Many have beautiful fall foliage and lovely shapes. If space is an issue, consider the Regal Prince oak, a column-shaped oak that grows up, not out.
But there’s more to life than ornamental fruit trees, maples and oaks. Carlson wishes more people would plant lesser-known trees to increase variety in our community’s landscape. Good options might be the Coffeetree, with its handsome bark; the sturdy Ironwood; Ginko, with its distinctive fan-shaped leaf, urban tolerance and ancient history; and Beech trees. Most species come in many varieties. For example, the Tri-color Beech has an attractive purple leaf edged in pink and green; the Horizontalis Beech has a horizontal branch habit that makes the tree form “look like a piece of fine sculpture,” says Carlson. Some trees, like the compact Little King Birch, are prized for their attractive peeling bark. Others are valued for the lush shade and delicious nuts they offer, such as the American Chestnut.
Carlson specializes in novelty and ornamental trees such as Japanese Maples, the March-blooming Witch Hazel, the comical Curly Willow and the Seven-Son tree (Heptacodium) with its exfoliating bark and double fall show of fragrant flowers that fall away to reveal red star-shaped sepals.
“When you see this Heptacodium on just the right sunny day in October, it’s absolutely stunning,” says Carlson.
Living trees and plants provide a year-round feast for the senses that can’t be substituted with anything else. Planting for the future is a gift to those who follow us, since today’s saplings are tomorrow’s majestic trees. But there’s something to be said for immediate gratification, too, like that pot of fall mums by your doorstep that cheers you each time you come home, even if it needs replacing each year.
Aren’t we lucky? Our climate supports an enormous range of exquisite living things that delight us as only they can.