Ahhh, the cooler temperatures of autumn! They are met annually with celebration, like a prize earned for enduring a Central Virginia summer. Fall is a great season for evaluation and renovation in the landscape and in the garden because of lower temperatures and higher rainfall. Fall is surely the best time of year to plant in Central Virginia.
That’s exactly why the Central Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association, a professional group of local nursery and landscape professionals, launched its grassroots campaign, Fall is for Planting. First, the cooler air temperatures reduce the stress on transplanted trees, shrubs, and perennials, while the warm soil temperatures that persist through the winter encourage root growth. Fall’s frequent rains keep the soil moist and pliable, while the cooler cloudy days enable the plant to acclimate with less stress. Typically, insects and diseases subside, increasing a plant’s chance for survival in the new location. On a practical note for homeowners, during the fall, plant sales are plenty at local garden centers and nurseries for great savings on landscaping essentials. Finally, planting deciduous trees and shrubs while they are dormant, after leaf drop, enables the plants to focus their energy on root growth. Roots will continue to grow during the winter months since the soil temperature (yes, soil temperature) typically stays above forty degrees. This means trees, shrubs, and perennials planted in the fall are months ahead of their counterparts planted in the spring due to winter root, and they are better acclimated and prepared for summer’s brutal heat.
We’ve established that fall is the best time to plant. Now, how to choose which plants to add to a landscape? Guidance is available through certified professionals at your local garden center, the members of the Central Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association (cvnla.org), or the Virginia Society of Landscape Designers, (vsld.org). These resources can provide a garden consultation or a full landscape design with suggestions for the right plants for your garden environment. When making a plant choice, it is important to consider the growth habit of the plant, the bloom time, fall coloration, whether the site receives full sun, part or full shade, and the soil conditions. Blending Virginia native plants into the landscape will provide food, cover, and nesting options for songbirds and pollinators.
Consider adding a vertical element to support the native vine Lonicera Major Wheeler. This long-blooming native honeysuckle is not an aggressive climber and blooms profusely in the full sun. Monarda didyma, or bee balm, is a perennial well known for its spreading habit. This native plant blooms during the summer months in full sun or partial shade.
Shrubs that thrive in the full sun or partial shade are viburnums. Arrowwood viburnum, Viburnum dentatum, provides three seasons of interest with white spring flowers, blue-colored berries in the summer, and leaves of red, yellow, and reddish-purple in the fall. Viburnums grow to varying heights and this native arrowwood has a rounded growth habit to fifteen feet. A smaller shrub that will slowly spread to fill an area in partial shade is dwarf fothergilla. Fothergilla gardenia Mt. Airy is a first bloomer with bottlebrush-shaped flowers that sweeten the air in March. The leaf coloration is a blend of yellow, orange, and hints of reddish-purple.
Come fall, the landscape lights up with lemon yellow leaves when a Chinese pistache, or Pistache chinensis, is part of the planting plan. This deciduous tree has a rounded growth habit growing to about thirty-five feet tall and wide in full sun. A smaller tree to consider is the early spring-blooming Magnolia x soulangeana, saucer magnolia. This popular tree grows to a height of twenty to thirty feet. In early spring, its blooming purple, pink, and white flowers are similar to the shape of a saucer when fully opened. Consider limbing up the tree (or removing lower branches) to plant shade-tolerant ground covers underneath, offering another area of interest in the garden.
In addition to the landscape, late summer to early fall is a time to renew your vegetable garden. You might sow a second crop of plants that prefer cooler days, such as leafy vegetables and cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, and kale, to name a few). The Virginia Tech Fall Planting Guide is a perfect resource for planning a late season vegetable garden (pubs.ext.vt.edu).
Annual bedding plants add season-long color to any landscape or garden. In the fall, chrysanthemums and snapdragons are a good choice, while pansies add interest in the winter. Planting bulbs in the fall not only provides color in the late winter and early spring, but also offers a fun family project. Of course, it’s a wonderful idea to engage your children in beautifying your garden and landscape. The time spent together will reap rewards beyond flowers and fruit. Little eyes see so much, and little hands are great at gently handling small plants. What a fantastic introduction to the concept of effort equaling reward, as homegrown flowers grace the table that includes a salad with vegetables from your very own garden!