Plant in the fall for a colorful winter, spring
by Pat Bowen
September 12, 2013 10:40 PM | 1166 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Patricia Bowen<br>Cherokee County Master Gardener
Patricia Bowen
Cherokee County Master Gardener
As we look out the winter window, it’s nice to see something blooming, and a small bit of autumnal effort can yield color through a dull season. In springtime, I’ve walked in many a woods spying only the barest remnants of a house or garden, and yet daffodils run wild because someone decades ago planted their bulbs in autumn so they could see early color out their kitchen window. Your own fall planting goals for flowering plants can involve winter color, spring flowers, or both.

For cool / cold weather plants

Planting in fall requires less effort than in spring, little or no watering and fertilizing, with satisfying results that stand out in drab winter landscapes. Plant roots grow best when soil is still warm, between 55-75 degrees at a depth of 6 inches, so the best time to plant is late September through October. After that it will be cooling off too quickly for adequate root development.

Prepare flower beds or containers as with good quality soil and drainage. Quality soil yields good flowers. Ditto for quality plants…. don’t look for bargains in this garden category as these plants will be subjected to tough conditions and expected to thrive. When planting, dig holes that are twice the size of the root ball and the same depth as the plant’s container. Place the plant in the hole; water the soil, and mulch to hold moisture in and keep cold out. Water these plants until they’re established, then let nature take over for the late fall and winter season.

What to plant? The most carefree choices for winter interest are pansies and Lenten rose (hellebores). Pansies are available in many colors and should be planted earlier rather than later for best root development through the cold season. Even on the coldest mornings the blooms will be sagging with frost and then lift up as the sun warms them later in the day.

Lenten rose is a foot-tall perennial that blooms in late winter. The flowers last eight weeks or more before turning green with the development of inflated seed pods which will reseed, propagating additional plants. Their leathery, dark green leaves are attractive all year. Hellebores take a couple of years to mature to flowering, so if plants you purchase don’t have flowers on them it may take a year or two before they bloom and propagate; they’re worth the wait.

For spring flowers

Bulbs are an easy choice for spring color and some, like crocus and even daffodil, will pop up through a rare Cherokee County snow. Bulbs should be planted so they can spread their roots to get ready to sprout upward when their time comes, so it’s best to get them in the ground before the soil cools. (Not all bulbs will bloom again and again if left in the ground. Some, like tulips, need a colder period than we naturally have here and so need to be dug up after the plants fade back, then stored in a very cool place before planting again. If you don’t dig them up they may compost themselves into the ground.)

Purchase firm and unblemished bulbs as they will have longer lives if they’re strong and healthy. Bargain bulbs are NOT a bargain. Also base your choice on whether you want your bulbs to sprout earliest (for instance crocus, snowdrop), in very early spring (daffodil, grape hyacinth), or full to late spring (lily of the valley, amaryllis, tulip, lilies of all kinds).

Most bulb blooms look best in groups, with a minimum of three planted 2 or 3 bulb lengths apart; the smaller the flower the larger the group. Read the package for bulbs regarding depth of planting; a rule of thumb for depth is 1-2 times the size of the bulb. Bulbs should be fertilized in the fall and just after flowering to maintain full vigor.

You can randomly scatter self-establishing bulbs such as daffodil and crocus on the ground in the fall and hope they will root and establish themselves under the leaves by spring. Or dig shallow pits in the soil under wooded areas and lay the bulbs point side up and replace the soil.

Once bulbs are in the ground, mulches will help them overwinter and provide a nice backdrop to show the blooms to better advantage. Pine straw, bark, fall leaves, or other organics work well. Normal cold season precipitation usually provides enough moisture for spring flowering bulbs.

Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website at or by contacting the Cherokee County Extension Office at 100 North St., Suite G21 in Canton at (770) 479-0418. The Georgia Extension Master Gardener Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

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