Look, ma, I’m still gardening!


Hydrangea paniculata “Limelight”, native lobelia, and rudbeckia hirta “Herbstomme” are destined for various beds—more coming from Bluestone.

Although I may have renounced some of the traditional flowers of fall—sorry, mum fans—in other ways I am embracing late season gardening more than ever before. And, no, it’s not just the 300-plus bulbs.

Rather than go gently into the balmy September night, I have big plans. Out go the final vestiges of the rose bed, to be planted in the alley where they can fend for themselves. In come a group of late-blooming, tall perennials. There is a new hydrangea to be planted and an old one to be moved. There may be another and even more comprehensive bed replacement in the works. And of course we have the bulbs.

I am sure many of you have known the joys of late summer and early fall gardening for many years, but for me, it has always been as if a switch gets turned off after Labor Day. There are reasons for this. At the end of a long, hot summer, it’s relaxing to just let the garden go, to stop watering the containers (which in my case get filled with bulbs), and simply watch the gradual decline of the perennials with a casual and detached interest. But it’s a very artificial timetable, based on the return to work and the start of a busy cultural season, with art openings, benefits, plays, and many other events to attend—well, if anyone was taken aback by Buffalo partying in summer, they should see us in the fall!

In reality, though, warm weather continues here through September and often well into October. There is absolutely no reason not to keep gardening, no reason, that is, except exhaustion. And I was heartened by some words from local garden writer and horticulturalist Sally Cunningham, who wrote in last Friday’s Buffalo News:

The perennials we used to buy were especially awful in August — pot-bound, leggy and well past flowering. They were cheap, but survival was a long shot. Who knew how many times the plants had dried out, been stressed and the real condition of those poor roots?
Now we can take home quart- or gallon- sized pots with lots of roots that haven’t even begun to touch the sides of the pots.
Also, many garden centers now maintain a full stock of plants through summer. Some were cut back once or twice, some potted up the next size pot. Others were purchased from top-quality wholesalers who grew them for summer purchase and optimum performance once they’re in the ground.

In spite of all assurances to the contrary, I have always been suspicious of fall planting of perennials, having experienced some frost heave, especially with heucheras. I still believe our zone is somewhat marginal for late season planting. This year will be my first experiment—we’ll see how it all survives. But at a certain point I will have to stop. When do you?

Previous articleA woodruff by any other name would smell as sweet
Next articleToronto Destroys 150-Species Natural Garden
Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Here in zone 4 (now 5) Minnesota, I have planted well into October, although last year I planted some Siberian Iris in late October and they did not bloom this year. They haven’t died though.

  2. In Austin we can plant all winter. My primary planting months are between October and May.

    Good luck with your new fall plants. They look lovely against that terracotta-colored wall.

  3. ** gloat**
    Here in zone 9 ( Northern California ) we plant until the winter rains make the soil too wet to work, .. but even then on those warm sunny winter days I’ll still go out and divide and replant the succulent , perennial and vegetable beds.

  4. The first year I gardened (zone 5) I got bulbs around the third week of November — after frost — and planted them. They did fine. The woman at the County Extension office told me she had planted bulbs as late as December and they survived.

    After that, I had confidence in late season planting. I’ve planted 5×8 shrub seedlings in November as well and they are now twice as large as when planted. I think shrubs actually do better if they are planted in fall — they can concentrate on root growth rather than trying to go into their usual leaf/bloom cycles while establishing themselves and enduring the heat. Then they are ready to rumble in spring.

    The perennials I planted last September have all done great too, so I did the spring-and-fall thing with Bluestone this year. Mine are supposedly coming today.

    I also have shrubs and bulbs coming, so I’ll be working at it until the last one is in the ground.

  5. I hear you about the heuchera and I have had problems with marginaly hardy plants,they should always be given a full season to put down roots for a better survival rate.

    Living in zone 5 (whatever the map changes say zone includes more that lowest temperature for me) I have found different plants react differently. Most planting in September and very early October does fine but later is beginning to be risky. I never transplant warm season grass after August.Even if it survives it does poorly next season so it has been my experience that it is better to wait until spring.
    That said, last year Colleen(head horticulturist) had us plant quite a few molina (that were donated) in early November, of which all did very well this year.

  6. Yes, Firefly, shrubs and trees are often planted quite late here as well. it is the recommended strategy, though many plant them in spring as well.

    Gloria, yeah, I’m hearing all this, but I gotta agree, I won’t be surprised if a few plants don’t make it. I have had anemones, aconitums, and heucheras disappear. And others probably that I’m blocking.

  7. Just like Michelle and Pam, fall is actually the best time to plant here in Nor Cal. The problem is most people just don’t realize it. Spring is physiologically the time to plant. Bees, flowers, rebirth, all that stuff. Fall is intellectually the better time to plant but emotion usually wins.

    The Calif. Assoc. of Nurseries use to run a “Fall is for Planting” campaign, but I don’t see it anymore.

  8. Yep, spring plantings have a hard time making it thru our summers here in Houston, so fall is good planting season. But unfortunately lots of stuff is only available certain times of the year so I know I end up planting year round. Surprisingly though, the nurseries here are pretty tapped out in Dec/Jan/Feb. Doesn’t really make sense to me as that’s about the only time of year you could garden all day long and be comfortable doing it!

  9. Here in Nova Scotia, on the Fundy shore, (5b)we have splendid autumns to make up for our crappy springs. Last autumn, (September, don’t remember exact dates) I put in some new shrubs, including several that are a bit iffy here: pyracantha and callicarpa. (the others were Amethyst symphoricarpos and Dark Knight caryopteris). I also put in three or four new perennial grasses, three perennial asters, a variegated lilyturf and a couple of sedum. Everything survived except the variegated lilyturf, and it was marginal so no big deal. I was more than pleasantly surprised, to say the least. My bulbs went in during a decent day in earlyNovember, but that’s not unusual; I am often away in October and it doesn’t get cool enough for me to really want to start planting bulbs anyway til late in the month.

  10. I don’t know that I have an actual stopping date, either… if it starts to feel like it might be “too late,” I just sink the whole pot, plant and all, into the ground for the winter in a holding spot and then replant it “for real” in the spring.

  11. Here’s what I like to do in zone 7b NW Georgia: buy up all the perennials on sale in the fall and plant them. Then, in the winter I visit my nurseries and get a REALLY good deal on the perennials because the only thing you can see is dirt in the pot and dormant roots. I go ahead and plant them, dormant. I’ve had pretty good sucess this way, and gotten lots of great deals. The only thing is that I have to muster up the desire to plant a bunch after a long, hot Georgia summer. But the payoff is worth it the following year.

  12. Interesting. In this record-hot summer in East Tennessee, I feel as though my second-wind gardening will just start up with Labor Day (and thereafter). I have major remodeling in mind. Out with so many of the clever cottage gardens (re-moved to the fence-row between my house and the neighbors’), and in with unpopular expanses of grass. yay! But our record-breaking hot and dry weather have postponed all this till early fall/late summer!

  13. I’m with Ann on the second wind. Ohio Augusts are killers with high humidity and temps. And this is when canning starts. I don’t do much in the garden until after labor day when the vetggies are done ans the weather cools down. Fall gardening rules. Lots of good sale prices at the nursuries.

  14. Warm soil equals strong root growth! I love to plant in late summer and there are deals to be had! I have found that heucheras can heave even when well established in the garden. I actually found veggie seedlings of bok choy and collard greens at the garden center yesterday. They were offering many more types of Brassicas and also lettuce which was ready to pop right into the garden! I never have time to start seedlings in July.

  15. Here in coastal South Carolina, our best season to garden is just beginning, and like the Austin folks, October through May is my favorite time to mulch, plant, transplant – and spend those long hours in the garden. Us southern gardeners are celebrating the fact that August is officially OVER.

Comments are closed.