Fall is a great time for gardening, especially with natives

Aster October Skies
September 12, 2016
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Learn a few new plant names, rethink the idea that “Spring is planting time” and you’ll have a fall to remember in your garden project.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, autumn is not merely the time to batten down the hatches in your yard or garden. The planting season lasts until the first freeze, and fall’s cooler temperatures can make it a good growing time.

“Native plants have learned how to survive or thrive in every season in their habitat,” said Carla Ellern, a landscape architect and planner for the Montgomery County RainScapes Rewards Rebate Program. “That includes fall. There are a few basic rules of thumb, but fall is actually a great time to plant, especially native species.”


Chelone glabra

White turtlehead – Chelone glabra

The Silver Linings of Fall Plantings

Don’t let the scorching summer that just preceded us dampen enthusiasm for new plants. Fall can be just as good a time for plants to take root as summer, and the cooler temperatures mean that you won’t need to water as frequently after planting as you would in spring or summer.

“It seems like a lot of people got away from planting in the fall,” said Anthony Eversmier, irrigation and propagation manager at Babikow Greenhouses, a Baltimore-based wholesale plant grower. “The plants look different, they take on the same types of color as [tree] foliage. You might see a little bit of their leaves falling off, but it’s not necessarily a big deal.”


Spotted Bee Balm

Spotted Bee Balm


Some hobbyists are reluctant to purchase new plants in the fall under the presumption that the heat of summer damaged plant stocks. Not so, though, said Eversmier.

“A really consistent group of plants are being sent out from our nurseries and most growers,” he said. “We’re used to maintaining quality products year-round. We have an integrated pest management that keeps everything in good condition.”

Even so, insects are a common concern among gardeners, and that concern looms large in autumn. There is particular worry around aphids, tiny insects that eat and damage plants.


Mountain Mint

Mountain Mint


Try not to overreact if you see an aphid or two, Eversmier suggests. In the fall, aphids can actually enhance the garden experience by providing a food source to some less-damaging, more-likable critters.

“You might see the onset of the aphid population, but you have your good guy August and September predators that all eat aphids,” Eversmier said. “Praying mantises, buckeye moths, and [ladybugs] all eat aphids. So they can actually be a good thing if you like those good guys in your garden.”

When in doubt, there is always at least one surefire way to check a plant’s health.

“Look for white or golden roots,” Eversmier advised. “You want a solid, nice and strong root system that looks evenly moist.”


Monarda fistulosa

Monarda fistulosa


Native Plants for Fall

Fall is a particularly good time for native plants, which are big components of rain gardens and other RainScapes projects.

Once established, native plants and rain gardens help manage stormwater in the winter as well as the summer, with their longer root systems and absorbent soils, respectively, trapping rain water or snow melt before it can hit pavement and carry pollutants into local waterways.


Amsonia tabernaemontana grande Eastern Bluestar

Eastern Bluestar – Amsonia tabernaemontana ‘grande’


Native plants that look great in the fall, according to experts, include:

  • Mountain mint
  • Eastern bluestar
  • Native asters including “October Skies” variety  (Picture at top of the page)
  • White turtlehead (this one attracts butterflies and other pollinators)
  • Ferns (for shadier areas)
  • Dotted bee balm (another pollinator attractor)
  • Wild bergamot

Rain garden and conservation landscaping projects can take advantage of the RainScapes Rewards Rebate program which offers financial incentives and technical assistance for projects like rain gardens that use native plants and help prevent stormwater runoff.

By Scott Harris. Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Montgomery County and covers the environment and other topics. He may be reached at scottharriswriter@gmail.com.

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