What's Best to Plant in the Fall?

Written by C.L. Fornari
Updated August 9, 2010
trees in fall
Find out what plants will thrive if you put them in the ground during the fall season. (Photo by Andrei Orlov)

Take advantage of the short fall planting season in colder climates by choosing smaller shrubs and perennials.

Get quotes from up to 3 pros!
Enter a zip below and get matched to top-rated pros near you.

Every autumn, you hear the same sage advice: Fall is for planting. But in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, winter is on its way -- is it really a good time to put things in the garden? How late can perennials, shrubs or trees be planted?

There's no question that fall is a great time to clear out old landscaping and prepare the soil. It's easier to find landscape help at this point in the season, and if you do it yourself, the weather is usually more conducive to being outdoors and doing the heavy work.

Once those overgrown beds or foundation plantings are cleared, however, is it OK to plant?

Fall is a fine time for planting or transplanting perennials, but when it comes to shrubs, dimensions are the determining factor, according to James Schmidt, owner of  JLS Services in Southampton, Pennsylvania.

"Fall is fine for planting or moving shrubs, but smaller plants are usually more successful," he says. "The larger the shrub, the more likely it is that there might be some winter damage."

One of the problems is that people turn off their hoses and irrigation systems in September or October and are less likely to keep the new arrivals well watered. Judith Lipson-Rubin, owner of A-rated Moodscapes LLC in Arlington, Massachusettts, says that watering well into late fall can make the difference between success and failure.

In coastal areas, such as the Boston metropolitan areas, the weather can be warm through November.

"You'll want to continue to water those new plantings well so that they go into the winter well hydrated," she says.

Areas that are south of Massachusetts, such as the New York and Washington, D.C., metro areas, stay warm in September as well. This is good for root growth, but if the weather is still hot, it might be best to wait until the end of the month to plant.

Professional gardener Ellen Zachos of Acme Plant Stuff in New York City, says that in her region and to the south, transplanting is better at the end of September or early October.

"Transplanting in the fall makes the gardener's job easier for a few reasons," she says. "First, new transplants need supplemental water, and we get plenty of autumn rain in this part of the country. That means less hand watering. Second, cooler temperatures make the transition less stressful for the plant and reduces needle or leaf drop."

For those planting or transplanting in the fall, applying a layer of mulch afterward is a good idea. It will keep the soil warmer, which will lead to greater root growth and faster recovery of the plant.

Remember, too, that for Northeast and Mid-Atlantic gardens, there's a narrow window for fall planting.

"I don't like to plant after the end of October," Lipson-Rubin says. "You want to be sure that everything can get established before the ground freezes."

C.L. Fornari is a writer, gardening expert, professional speaker and radio host who is dedicated to getting you into the garden. The Osterville, Mass., resident is a member of the Perennial Plant Association, American Plant Propagators Society, National Speakers Association and Garden Writers of America.

Need professional help with your project?
Get quotes from top-rated pros.