Thursday, September 29, 2011

Plant Sale & Fall Planting Tips

Our Fall Plant Sale will enhance
your garden year-round

By Kate Blakely

For all kinds of gardens, from vegetable to trees and shrubs, fall is best for planting. And the key in successful planting is in the roots. As plants go dormant in colder weather, they focus on their roots systems. Even planting in winter can work well, so long as the ground isn’t frozen and the plants receive proper care. Then, come spring, fall plantings will be already in the ground, ready to go.

We’ll have a wide range of plants available at our Fall Plant Sale Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon at Duke Gardens. Our horticulturists will also be on hand with expert advice. To start you on your way, horticulturist Michelle Rawlins offers a few fall planting tips below.

Soil Preparation: “Soil prep is your first task that you want to focus on when you’re starting a new bed,” says Rawlins. First, dig a hole a bit larger than the pot the plant came in. Make sure to break up any clay or compacted soil to allow proper drainage for your new plant. Add two to three shovel scoops of composted material to the soil you have removed from the hole. Blend all of this soil well. Remember, the key is in the roots, and having good soil is important.

“Compost does improve the quality of your soil and will produce a healthier specimen in your garden,” says Rawlins.

Planting: If the plant has been sitting in the pot for a while, it’s probably “root-bound.” Plants are usually initially grown in a soilless material along with PermaTill or vermiculite. These types of media make it really easy for the roots to grow. Inside a pot, fast-growing roots circle each other, forming a “root-ball.”

“If you don’t break the roots up, they’ll just continue to circle as if they’re still in the pot instead of in the ground,” Rawlins said. You need to break apart the root-ball gently before you plant.

“The hole should be no deeper than the root-ball,” Rawlins says. “If anything, you want to plant it about an inch or so higher than ground level, because the newly worked soil will settle, and if the plant’s too low, it has little success of thriving or even surviving.”

Cover any exposed root-ball with mulch. Rawlins recommends triple-shredded hardwood.

Watering and Fertilizing: Water the plant in well. Keep an eye on the plants for signs of thirst, like flagging or drooping. “They’ll let you know,” Rawlins says.

Be careful not to over-fertilize. “You don’t want to promote too much root growth in the fall,” Rawlins says. “You don’t want to push your plants too hard because of the threat of freezing.”

“Fall is a nice time to plant because you don’t have to water them every day,” Rawlins concluded. “The cool nights will be optimum for keeping your plant from too much stress or transplant shock.”

We’re happy to offer more advice at our Fall Plant Sale Saturday. And if you want first dibs, consider joining Friends of Duke Gardens to attend the 8 a.m. pre-sale (Friends info: 668-1711); you can join on site. Parking is free. The sale will feature bulbs best planted in (you guessed it!) the fall, as well as flowers, trees, vines and shrubs found throughout Duke Gardens all year. Read a more detailed preview in our previous post.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St. Visit online at, or call 684-3698. For more information on Duke Gardens events, please see our education & events page, or read our quick blog roundup.

Kate Blakely is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens.

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