Labor Day planting

Labor Day weekend is late this year and it marks the unofficial end of the summer season as some of the kids return to school.

For some children, classroom school ended in March and it may not return until next year. Others will begin classes this week or next, under very different conditions than anyone could have foreseen a year ago.

For many of us, early fall is the nicest time of the year here in the Northern Catskill/Hudson Valley region. We have had a touch of fall with some overnight temperatures in the 40s and 50s at higher elevations, and some deciduous trees are beginning to show a hint of their fall colors. There are fewer mosquitoes, no black flies or no-see-ums and it really is a great time to plant things!

Fall is almost as good, or in some cases, even a better time to plant trees, shrubs and perennials than spring. Shorter days and cooler temperatures place less demand on developing root systems and warm soil temperatures allow for rapid root growth. One of the main reasons plants fail to become established in the home landscape is because of insufficient root development during the summer. This hot and mostly dry summer has made it hard for root systems to fully develop, unless the gardener has been diligently watering at least once a week.

Right now is also a good time to shop, since many garden centers have sales on all sorts of plants, from trees and shrubs to perennials. While many of these plants may not look quite as pretty now as they would in the spring, they will look just as nice next spring if you plant them now and take care of them.

I expect that some garden centers will sell out their stock this fall as more and more people turn to gardening as a source of mental and physical relief in this COVID pandemic year. If you plan to plant spring flowering bulbs, I suggest you buy them as soon as possible since I expect them to sell out as well. Remember that I warned you to buy canning equipment back in July!

Remember to dig a $200 hole for a $100 tree, if you want it to become a permanent part of the landscape. Concentrate on making the planting hole much wider than you think it needs to be, but perhaps a lot shallower than you might think necessary. Tree and shrub roots grow much more sideways than down.

Ninety percent of a tree’s roots are in the top 12 inches of soil. Very few trees and shrubs need holes more than 18 inches deep but the excavated area should be 3 feet wide, or even wider. For trees and shrubs I suggest you add no fertilizer or any other soil amendments at time of planting to the excavated soil, unless you have extremely sandy soil. Spreading a tarp next to the excavation, to put the dug-up soil onto, will prevent much of that soil from disappearing into a grassy area.

Many professional landscapers will add peat moss or compost to the backfilled soil. My philosophy is that the tree or shrub you are planting needs to adapt to your existing soil conditions and adding compost, peat moss and fertilizer to the backfill soil only serves to create artificial conditions for the roots to quickly fill in.

Once the roots fill in the amended soil they have a very hard time expanding into the surrounding native soil, which sometimes causes them to die rather suddenly a year or so after planting.

For perennials, my advice is just the opposite! Take the time to dig down a foot deep if possible, remove stones, add peat moss or compost up to one third by volume of the excavated soil, and also mix in some organic fertilizer such as bone meal, composted manure and cottonseed meal or dried blood.

Perennial root systems are not going to extend 15 feet or more into the surrounding soil, as tree or shrub roots will, so it is important to create “cushy,” rich soil right below for them to thrive.

All perennials, trees and shrubs will also grow much better if they have a 3-inch layer of organic mulch such as wood chips, shredded bark or pine nuggets over their root systems. Grasses and weeds seriously compete with the root systems of trees and shrubs and research indicates that trees may grow as much as four times faster if mulched, compared to allowing grass to grow right up the trunk.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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