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When Is It Too Late to Plant? (Hint: Gardening Season Isn’t Over Yet)

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Sure, once spring arrives, you’re eager to get your hands in the dirt and start planting all those beautiful perennials, shrubs and trees in your garden. But don’t overlook autumn! “Fall is a good time to plant, especially in warmer climates,” says Stacey Hirvela, horticulturist with Proven Winners Color Choice Shrubs. “That’s because you’re giving plants the longest possible period to get established before environmental conditions become the most stressful, which is in summer for southern gardens.”

In cold climates, it’s still not a bad idea to get deciduous plants, or ones that shed their leaves, in the ground in fall. “The benefit is that plants are going dormant and not putting energy into flowers or fruit, so they’re concentrating on root growth,” says Hirvela. Of course, more root growth means better performance in the long run. While air temperatures are in the 50s (and even in the 40s), plants still are growing roots, which will give them a better start next spring, Hirvela explains.

Spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, also must be planted in the fall because they require a 12- to 16-week chilling period in order to bloom. For gardens in the Lower South, look for pre-chilled bulbs to make sure they’ll bloom reliably.

yellow daffodils in a field
James O’Neil/Getty Images

When Is It Too Late to Plant in the Fall?

In USDA Hardiness zones 9 and 10 (find your zone here), the ground doesn’t generally freeze, so you can plant perennials, shrubs and trees all the way until early spring; you’ll want to have the plant in the ground no later than six weeks before the temperatures start to soar. Again, the idea is to give your plant plenty of time to grow roots and get established before the most challenging weather conditions arrive in your region.

In areas with cold winters, such as USDA Hardiness zones 5 and 6, you’ll generally want to wrap up fall planting by late October, and by mid-October in zones 3 and 4. But better late than never! If you didn’t get around to planting something in a timely manner, it’s still better to get it in the ground, as long as the earth isn’t frozen solid. Plant now, then move it in the spring, if need be, rather than trying (usually unsuccessfully) to keep it alive in the nursery pot over the winter, says Hirvela.

When Is It Too Late to Plant Spring-Flowering Bulbs?

With bulbs, you can plant them much later than you might think. As with other plants, it’s ideal to have them in the ground six weeks before the ground freezes. But as long as you still can dig a hole in the ground, you can plant bulbs. Plus, each bulb contains its own stored energy, so it usually will flower in the spring even if it didn’t have a ton of time to grow roots.

If you didn’t get around to planting your bulbs or if you find some late-season deals (hello, 50 percent off sale at the nursery!), consider planting bulbs in a container, leaving the pot on your patio, then bringing indoors in February to “force” early blooms indoors, says Hirvela. The cheery flowers will be a welcome sight on a late winter day.

frost-covered plants in a garden
Denise Breaux/Getty Images

Can I Still Plant After We've Had a Frost or Freeze?

Yes! “These are temporary conditions when it comes to fall planting,” says Hirvela. Frosts or freezes in early fall don’t change the soil or necessarily end the growing season, and you still have time to get your plant in the ground. Just make sure to keep your plant watered, especially if it’s a dry fall. And add a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch, which conserves moisture, reduces erosion risk, and helps insulate and prolong the period of root growth.

Is There Anything I Shouldn't Plant in the Fall?

In cold areas of the country, not all plants are suitable for fall planting. Shrubs, such as bigleaf hydrangeas and butterfly bushes are especially sensitive to cold, so wait until spring to plant them, says Hirvela.

Evergreens, such as pines or junipers, and broadleaf evergreens, such as rhododendrons, also aren’t ideal candidates for fall planting in cold climates. That’s because while deciduous plants lose their leaves and go dormant, evergreens slow down but keep photosynthesizing, which requires a lot of energy from root systems that may not be well established. Evergreens also lose moisture through their foliage in winter, which may make them more susceptible to winter damage.

If you must plant evergreens in autumn in cold climates, the sooner you do it, the better so they’ll have plenty of time to establish a good root system, says Hirvela. Also, keep watering new evergreens (and all your other fall plantings) until the ground freezes, which is usually December-ish. And don’t forget to mulch!

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