Monday, September 9, 2013

How and why to plant in fall

By Erika Zambello

Summer may be drawing to a close, but the ideal time for planting perennials and winter vegetables is fast approaching.

Fall is perhaps best known as the season of the harvest, when apples and corn and pumpkins and so much more are finally ready for picking, eating and pie-making. However, not all of us are aware that the autumn months are also the perfect time to break out those planting tools once again and prepare for future growing seasons.

Hilary Nichols, garden manager at the Durham nonprofit SEEDS, spoke with us to explain the importance of the season and to give a few tips for a successful fall planting.

“Fall is the best time to plant,” says Nichols, who will teach a “Gardening 101” class at Duke Gardens next month. “When it is way too hot or way too cold, plant roots don’t grow very much. They grow when humans really enjoy the weather the best, too, in the spring and in the fall.”

Ideal temperatures are not the only reason fall gives gardeners a jump on their growing season. Perennials, trees and shrubs need quality time to grow strong and healthy roots.

“If the roots start growing in the fall,” Nichols explains, “they have the fall to grow, and then they rest in the winter. They have the spring to grow before summer comes, and summer is really the big test for whether the roots have done a good job growing. If you were going to plant in the spring, you would only have one season before the big test, but if you plant in the fall you have two seasons for the roots to grow before they really get tested by all the drought in the summer.”

As with spring planting, gardeners must weed, lay their compost and plant their seeds. But winter differs in terms of watering habits, says Nichols, who cautions new gardeners against over-watering.

“You don’t want to water on a schedule, because through the winter things won’t dry out as quickly,” she says. “You just need to be paying attention to the plants and to the soil to make sure you are watering appropriately, and that can be a difficult thing for a new person.”

Paying attention to the surface of the soil is important, Nichols says. But you’ll need to dig deeper to gauge your watering needs. “Try to stick your finger as deeply as you can into the soil and test how wet it is through and through. If you have trouble feeling how wet it is just by touching it, you might want to take a pinch of soil and feel it.”

But watching the soil is not enough, she adds. “Keep an eye on the leaves and make sure they’re the right color, really thick and full of water, and not dry and wrinkly.”

For more gardening basics, consider taking Nichols’ “Gardening 101” class on Saturday, Oct. 19, from 9 a.m. to noon. To register, or for more information, please call 919-668-1707. You can also learn more about gardening by volunteering at SEEDS. Volunteers at all ability levels are welcome. For information, go to or call 919-683-1197.

Stayed tuned for more advice from Nichols in our next column. And you can see Duke Gardens’ full schedule of classes, drop-in activities and events at Duke Gardens' calendar of events.

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 receives roughly half of its operating budget from Duke University. The rest comes from people like you, who value all that this public botanic garden has to offer. Duke Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Columnist Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun.

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