Gardeners to Nurseries: Fall’s the New Spring


You hear this advice everywhere:  plant in the fall.  Trees, shrubs, flowering perennials, grasses, bareroot, bulbs, cool season veggies and annuals, wildflower seeds–there is nothing, it seems, that wouldn’t benefit from being planted in the fall so that it can put down roots all winter and go crazy in the spring.  Here on the west coast, our mild, rainy winters and dry summers make it necessary to do major planting in the fall.  Otherwise, new plants won’t make it through the summer without a massive irrigation project.

So–uh–where are the plants?  Sure, nurseries start carrying bulbs, bins of bareroot asparagus, and fruit trees around this time of year.  But the nurseries are almost bare–and the few scraggly perennials that are left are marked down and shoved off in a corner to make way for holiday greens.

I was at a nursery last week and when an employee asked if he could help me, I said, "Well, I’m just looking for stuff to plant.  It’s the season to plant, you know."  He just laughed and said, "Yeah, it’s ironic–but we can’t get anything in this time of year and we wouldn’t have time to get it all sold anyway."

So there you go.  Fall planting may be best for the garden, but I guess it’s just not convenient for the nursery industry.  Wait for spring, when overfed flowering annuals will crowd the parking lot at your local garden center.

Let’s tell ’em what we think. 


  1. This is my number ONE complaint. I’ve been telling everyone to plant now but in the nurseries they’re finding bupkis.
    A side rant is in order on the subject of Arbor Day – in spring. Some jurisdictions are doing the sensible thing and moving it to fall but it’s part of the culture, I guess. So my town gives away trees in the spring and they’re dead by September.

  2. I have had the exact same experiences in garden shops (I suppose we all have). The most I’m finding are those nifty shelves filled with bulbs… where are the cold weather veggie starts!? And the organic compost (for those of us who didn’t make enough on our own)?

    I like your thoughts on Arbor Day Susan… time for some community lobbying!

  3. Most of what I plant in fall comes from cuttings, divisions and seeds started in early summer. About 4 or 5 years ago the local Home Depot [big box with plant section]tried selling for fall planting. Many large seedlings and small shrubs were avalible but buyers were not accustomed to finding them at that time of year and so the experiment failed, not to be tried again.
    Things that have failed with fall planting in our cold winter, Japanese anemone, Tiarella, some grasses, Ajuga…

  4. Gloria alludes to the dangers of fall planting up here in the north woods. Trees and shrubs work out fine, but perennials are iffy. We have about a 2-4 week window in which to plant to ensure survival through a cold Minnesota winter without summer heat killing off the plants first. Most nurseries aren’t willing to stock plants for such a short time, and I must say, I understand.

  5. I live in Hawaii. I can plant at any time of the year. Most vegies do better in the winter though.

    For now we can water like gluttons so the long dry summer on the burgeoning leeward side is no obstacle, but the handwriting is on the wall. You would think these folks would be trained when they get here or maybe they just revel in the new lack of water restrictions.

  6. UK nurseries are going through some kind of weird transition. Well it’s not weird at all when you look at matters from their P.O.V. they want to make money and they make more money from selling coffee in their cafes and restaurants or from selling spas, hot tubs… …all of which take no uptake.

    Who wants the arduous task of maintaining plants for a general public that mainly impulse buy and know nothing about what they are doing?

  7. I’m also in Minnesota. Early October is a great time to divide and transplant into new beds. I usually try to start a new holding bed each fall, where I put the extras and those impulse buys that have yet to find a permanent home. Keys to survival: water and mulch. I’ll water those transplants until the ground freezes. Then I’ll put on a thick layer of marsh hay with stakes and temporary fencing to hold it in place.

  8. I’m done with moving or buying/planting perennials at this point, and since the fall has turned so cold so quickly I’m done with shrubs at this point, too. All I’m doing now is watering what I recently moved if needed, laying down lasagna beds for next spring, and maybe working on my flagstone path and general cleanup.

    I do have to say that I don’t mind the nursery sales in the fall, though. I figure that getting to buy a few things (like dwarf oakleaf hydranges, which otherwise never go on sale) dirt cheap now makes up for the lack of choice during this “fall planting season.”

    And I second JLB’s complaint about the lack of compost availability!

  9. I’m up north, too, but I think of early fall as starting in mid- to late August. With the exception of bulbs, I don’t do a lot of planting in the fall, but I do a lot of rearranging. I’ve had a whole growing season to see where things should have been planted the first time, and I’ve already moved them. Planted my last bulb (a single, expensive camassia) over the weekend, and now it’s any cleanup weather permits.

  10. I do my real fall planting in January.

    At that time, I’ll plant mimulus and salvia cuttings I have in one-gallon pots that I’m moving around the yard right now to follow the sun, and maybe some more huckleberry if I can get cuttings to root.

    In November, I’ll sow wildflower seeds and dig in one more round of bulbs and plant some fava beans and garlic and maybe some more winter lettuce.

    Right now I’m thinning flats of Cineraria and Fuchsia boliviana v. alba grown from seed that I collected on neglected acreage at the community college. I’ll pot up the fuchsia in a week or two and plant out the cineraria whenever it’s ready.

    And I have a flowering quince I bought last year that I have no idea what to do with. Still waiting for inspiration to strike, I guess. It’s like having clothes in your closet you never wear but don’t want to get rid of.

  11. Like Kathy, I dove in with what I had left over from spring and a bunch of impulse buys from an August perennial sale. I started around the first of September and finished around the first week of October, and we had our first frost night before last. I’m still waiting for an order of about 150 bulbs but, frankly, I’m glad my season is mostly over. I’ll probably wander by the nursery to see if I can pick up another $3 bayberry, but I have no real plans.

    Now that stores set out shorts and polo shirts after New Year’s and start hawking back to school stuff in July, I always thought that the “plant in fall” thing was mostly for the nurseries to get rid of their remaining stock. I bought four shrubs locally and nine seedlings online last fall and the local nursery staff were practically flinging bargains at my head like they were dead plants already.

    All these shrubs did well this summer, but I was a little surprised, because it definitely seemed like a fire sale atmosphere. At the time I thought, oh sure. Plant a cheapo in fall, come back in spring and buy a full-price replacement!

  12. Oh, I wish we could plant in the fall. I live in the Colorado Rockies at 9600 feet in elevation. 75 frost free days normally and up to 90 in a good year. You’d better have everything you want to plant done by Labor Day and that might be pushing it. I have the opposite problem. Can’t get bulbs EARLY enough! I evny you all who can garden in the Fall !!!

  13. I stopped by a local nursery yesterday and they had all kinds of trees and shrubs.

    Unfortunately, with temps in the 40’s and very windy, I was about the only customer there. Plus, we keep having rain so it is too wet to plant! But there is still some time…

  14. Fall is the time to plant here in California. The California nursery industry has been running the “Fall is for Planting” campaign for some time. As a garden center you don’t want your money tied up with inventory when you are going into the winter. There is nothing like needing cash and staring at unsold shrubs and trees in the middle of winter. That’s where the term “my money is tied up in inventory” is from. Many a garden center has gone out of business when cash flow slows and unsold plants are on the ground. You can’t pay P.G.&E or Ma Bell with plants. If you’re lucky you might sell them come spring, but generally you want to start with fresh stock. So to get rid of them we have fall clearance sales. Even with those most people just don’t understand the potential of fall and don’t shop the nurseries. If all my customers were avid gardeners like Amy we would probably bring in more plants for fall since they would know to plant them now. If you do load up the nursery with fall plants and the weather changes to rain you’re stuck. Now you have to wait till spring to sell them.

    I would love to have greater sales during fall. We have tried over the years to cultivate a more garden oriented clientele with the hope that sales would be spread more evenly between spring and fall. We are always educating our customers about fall planting. Spring planting is a biological urge that most people cannot ignore. Fall planting is more intellectual based 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”, accept among the true gardeners, like Amy.

    As a business owner it’s important to keep the nursery looking as full as possible with a reasonable selection of plants to choose from in the fall. Still though I know winter is right around the corner and with the first real rains most plant sales are done. It’s a juggling act to have enough to sell without excess going into winter.

    The solution? I believe continued education and the willingness of garden centers to take a chance and have a good fall selection of plants. The problem is you have to build up customer awareness of the fact that you have this great selection of fall plants. That takes a few years and many garden center operators are not patient enough to wait that long. One or two years of dumping unsold fall plant stock will do that to you.

    “Fall planting may be best for the garden, but I guess it’s just not convenient for the nursery industry.” I would have to disagree. I think most nurseries would be filled even fuller with plants if people demanded them. Most of us in the garden center business would give anything to keep sales going right through fall into winter. That’s another reason for the clearance sales. Most people have gotten so used to them they now demand it. So we have to have these sales because that’s what the public wants. Most garden centers don’t have as great a selection in the fall because the public doesn’t just doesn’t demand it.

    It’s ultimately up to the garden centers to do a better job of attracting customers during this great planting time. We can’t “blame” the public. More and more people like Amy need to let their local garden center know that they are missing out on sales by not being well stocked. I know we listen when someone tells us they “would” have spent money with us if we had what they wanted.

  15. Great comments from Trey. Having been in lawn and garden sales in the Northeast for the past ten years bears witness to the truth of Trey’s experience. The gardeners on this site are the exception to the rule. Most average gardeners don’t even know that frost will kill their impatiens!

  16. My area isn’t extremely well suited to Fall planting. Hardier perennials and shrubs do well, but Hybrid Tea roses, heat-loving plants (e.g. prairie natives) and broadleaf evergreens are best planted in Spring here.

    MY chief complaint is that the selection of bulbs available at local nurseries gets smaller every year. I want something other than red tulips and yellow daffodils.

    Yes, I know that bulbs are a loss leader unless one or more employees make a concerted effort to sell them. Yes, I also know that I don’t live in a horticulturally active town. But geez–don’t make it harder for those of us who ARE avid gardeners, perhaps not dropping several thousand on a custom landscaping job, but spending faithfully month in and month out at the nurseries, buying everything from potting soil to seeds to bulbs to annuals, houseplants, perennials and woody plants. Oh–and a few pots, stakes, gloves, trowels and other supplies along the way.

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