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The beginning of fall is also a great time to plant container grown trees and shrubs and many herbaceous perennials.

Throughout history, there have been many versions of this thing we call a calendar. The one we now accept to guide us through the year is known as the Gregorian calendar. It not only helps us keep precise track of birthdays, holidays, and other dates relevant to our day-to-day existence, but it also tells us when spring, summer, fall and winter seasons begin. However, we gardeners operate on a slightly different calendar, one which, in this region, tells us that Memorial Day is the beginning of the summer gardening season. It’s when much of our focus is on planting. On the other hand, Labor Day is usually looked at as the beginning of fall when the focus is primarily on harvesting and cleaning up the garden. If that is your sole focus now, then you are missing a golden opportunity to turn back the calendar as this is an excellent time to plant.

Most people realize that fall is when spring flowering bulbs are planted, but what else is there to plant, especially now before fall has even begun? For one, this is the best time to plant new lawns or renovate and reseed old ones. As anyone who has seen their lawns turn brown and the grass fall asleep in response to hot and often dry conditions of summer, recognize that turf grass grows best during the cool and typically moist months of spring and fall. So, it makes sense to sow grass seed when the grass plants grow best.

This is also a great time to plant container grown trees and shrubs and many herbaceous perennials. Though these plants are unlikely to produce any new shoots, they will grow new roots. The reason for this growth response is that, despite cooler air temperatures, the soil remains warm for much of this month and through early fall. Likewise, shorter days and cooler air temperatures induce plants to enter dormancy during which time plant food in the form of sugars and other carbohydrates are diverted from the shoots to the roots.

There are other reasons to prompt you to abandon visions of fall slumber or spending zombie-like hours in front of the TV watching football. Cooler air favors soil moisture retention, reduces pest and disease pressure, and makes for more pleasant working conditions. If that is not enough to spur some fall planting, maybe the fact that many retail garden centers and nurseries offer great deals on plant purchases at this time as they need to reduce their inventory prior to winter.

Celebrate Labor Day by engaging in these labors:

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Now is the time to apply a 2- to 4-inch deep layer of wood chip mulch around newly planted trees and shrubs.

  • Plant trees and shrubs by digging a hole 2 to 3 times wider than the root ball, but no deeper than the root ball. Loosening soil at the bottom of the hole can lead to too much settling of the tree or shrub. If soil drains poorly, make the hole slightly shallower so that the root ball ends up an inch or two above the ground level.
  • Apply a 2- to 4-inch deep layer of wood chip mulch around newly planted trees and shrubs. Never pile up a very deep layer mulch around the stem of the tree or shrub, a situation often referred to as volcano mulching because of the shape of the mulch heap. Also, leave a space of a few inches between the mulch and plant stem.
  • Amend soil where herbaceous perennials are to be planted by working in some compost, a handful of superphosphate, and an organic fertilizer such as cottonseed meal.
  • Continue mowing around fruit trees and other smooth barked trees through the fall. Keeping grass and weeds mowed will persuade mice and voles, fond of gnawing on tree bark, to go elsewhere to satisfy their cravings.
  • Perk up colorless flower borders now by planting chrysanthemums. Though the early birds have picked over many of the choicest plants, there is still a good supply available at most garden centers.
  • Keep an eye, maybe both, on the foliage of summer flowering bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias, dahlias, caladiums, and cannas. When the leaves begin to turn yellow, or just before a predicted frost, dig up bulbs, tubers, or rhizomes of these summer bloomers. Dry the “bulbs,” remove clinging soil, trim away the browned shoots, and store the bulbs in a cool, dry, and airy location. Be sure to label each type of bulb, including a note on color.
  • Check window frames to see if they are in need of caulking or sealing. This is not just to keep you warmer this winter but also to keep out insects looking for a winter home.
  • Fertilize lawns. There is no better time than now. If you have a well or your soils are sandy, use a lawn fertilizer with at least 50 percent of the nitrogen in a slow-release form.
  • Buy some bales of straw while they are still available. Straw will be needed later this fall for mulching newly planted garlic, as well as for carrots and other roots crops to be harvested during the winter. Straw will also be needed to cover strawberry beds in November.

Garden Journal columnist Ron Kujawski began gardening at an early age on his family's onion farm in upstate New York. Although now retired, he spent most of his career teaching at the UMass Extension Service.