Nothing to Plant (and other perils of fall gardening)

A few weeks ago, I was making my usual Saturday morning circuit of the local nurseries looking for something to plant. It’s fall, after all. Everybody who’s ever read a gardening magazine knows that fall is the season to plant, especially here on the West Coast. It’s about to start raining regularly, and that means that perennials will have plenty of time to put down roots over the winter. When spring rolls around, they’ll be well-established and ready to bloom.

There’s almost no limit to the kinds of plants that should go in the ground right now. Flowering perennials like Shasta daisies and columbine would jump right up and bloom if you planted them in November. Hefty trees and shrubs need a long, rainy winter to get established. Ornamental grasses, groundcovers, and new lawns would also appreciate the wet weather. Then there are the fall classics, like spring-blooming bulbs, bareroot fruit trees and roses, and other culinary wonders like berry vines, artichokes, and strawberries. Throw in annuals like wildflowers seeds, cool-season bedding plants, and winter vegetables like lettuce and kale, and it begins to seem like fall is the only time to plant anything.

But then you hit the nurseries, and that’s where the trouble begins. There’s just not that much left to buy at this point in the season. At one local nursery, an employee stopped and asked if he could help me. “I’m just looking for something to plant,” I said forlornly, looking around at the bedraggled, marked-down stock. He was sympathetic. “I know,” he said. “It’s such a great time to plant. But we just don’t get many people in here this time of year, and we can’t bring a bunch of new plants in and have them sit around all winter.” So I picked up a few bulbs and some other odds and ends, and trudged home to put them in the ground.


But this idea kept bothering me. Why is it that every garden expert worth her compost advises people to plant in fall, but the plants just can’t be found? What’s the disconnect between what we know we should do, and the plants we want to do it with?

The next day, I posted a survey on a group blog I participate in called GardenRant. I asked readers about their fall planting plans. Now, it was hardly a scientific poll, but 66 people responded, and 15 posted comments to elaborate on their plans. (If you want to take the poll yourself, go to

To my surprise, 56 percent answered that they were totally geared up to plant, and would buy whatever the nurseries had for sale. Nobody was planning to stay out of the garden entirely until spring. And of the people who posted comments, most responded that they would love to do more planting in fall, or wished that their climate would allow it.

But the best response came from the owner of a garden center, who understood the psychology of gardeners better than any of us. “Spring planting is a biological urge that most people cannot ignore,” he said. “Fall planting is more intellectual in that the gardener ‘knows’ plants will often perform better when planted in fall. There is no underlying ‘need’ for most people to plant in the fall. There is no fall equivalent to ‘Spring Fever’, except among the true gardeners.” He went on to say that if gardeners showed up in droves every October and November, the nurseries would happily stock up. But he’s right—it isn’t until that first warm, sunny springtime day that gardeners are lured into nurseries, drawn to those cheery racks of blooming annuals out front like butterflies attracted to a sunflower. There’s just something in us that tells us to plant in spring, and to go inside and get warm in fall.

But if you can fight those natural urges, this is the time to get out there and get something in the ground. Finish planting your bulbs. Divide some perennials. And—most important—cruise through the nursery on a chilly weekend morning and thank the staff for sticking around to satisfy your fall cravings.

You’ll probably find some good bargains. Plants might not be in full bloom the way they’d be in spring, but that’s OK—you want them to forget about blooming for a while and just build a healthy root system. In fact, if you’re having trouble identifying that little collection of sticks and leaves in the four-inch pot, just ask—I’ve found that at most nurseries, every plant has a staunch supporter on staff, someone who understands its potential and is hoping it finds a good home before winter.


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