Tall cornstalks and wilting flowers tell gardeners that it’s time to harvest and cut back flowers before frosty mornings and cool winds punctuate the end of summer. But some gardeners say, “It’s time to start planting.”
“People commonly think fall isn’t a good time to plant. That’s a huge misconception. The best times to plant are in the spring and the fall,” said Sprague’s Nursery & Garden Center retail manager Melissa Higgins.
Even in the cold state of Maine, the right plants can flourish in the autumn and retain the color and texture to liven up winter gardens. The prime time for planting fall gardens is during the next couple of weeks, according to Higgins.
Higgins, 27, of Hermon, has been gardening since she was 16, and from her experience, fall gardening is easier on both the plants and the gardener.
“If you’ve worked outside at all this summer, it’s ridiculous,” said Higgins. “It’s much easier to work on a day when it’s 60 degrees rather than 90.”
In the fall, plants need less water and fertilizer. In fact, fertilizing plants after mid-August is a bad idea, according to Higgins. Fertilizer triggers plants to develop tender, new growth that will be damaged by cold weather.
“It’s really great to be buying this time of year,” said Higgins. “You buy a plant that’s huge in the pot — it’s had its chance to grow at the nursery — and they have greater value.”
Sprague’s usually sells 8,000 to 9,000 chrysanthemums, kale and asters for fall planting.
“Most people think they are limited to what they can plant, but there’s a huge selection,” Higgins said.
Chrysanthemums, commonly known as mums, are one of the most popular annual fall flowers in Maine. As late bloomers, they add splashes of white, yellow, red, burgundy and purple to garden beds.
The best-selling perennials for fall gardens are black-eyed Susans and “Autumn Joy” sedum.
“I’ve been a gardener for a while and I get bored of the basic stuff,” said Higgins, who created the “Fall Magic” collection of annual plants at the nursery.
“Fall is about color and texture, not necessarily blooming,” said Higgins. Ruffled kale leaves vary from foggy green to deep purple. A form of cabbage, it tastes sweeter after being exposed to frost.
The nursery sells a variety of what Higgins refers to as “funky grasses.” “Purple Majesty” millet, with tall stalks and heads shaped like corn, are a good focal point for fall gardens, she said.
Purple fountain grass adds rich purple, burgundy and light pink to a garden bed, and seeds from their feathery stalks attract birds.
Birds also enjoy flowering crab apple trees, some of which produce berry-sized apples. Although the trees lose their leaves in the fall, the red apples usually cling to the branches all winter.
“Typically, the fall plants will stay looking fairly decent until mid-October,” said Higgins, referring to deciduous plants.
This year, it’s evident that fall is coming early, despite the recent run of hot weather. Trees already are dropping their leaves and the first frost is predicted to come to Portland on Sept. 30, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. So the fall planting period starts earlier than usual, and the fall gardening season will be shorter than usual, said Higgins.
The good news is that several fall plants, such as creeping wire vine, will adapt to an indoor environment.
Perennials should be cut down after they go dormant. Cutting off the foliage stores energy and reduces the chance of mold and mildew collecting over the winter.
“It looks pretty desolate in the winter,” said Higgins. “But if you plan for it, gardens can still look nice.”
Evergreens are resistant to frost and snow and maintain their appearance throughout the winter. For example, the evergreen shrub gold mop will remain bright yellow year-round.
Although winterberry and red-twigged dogwood will lose their leaves, their winter skeletons are vibrant contrasts to the white snow.
Fall also is the ideal time to grow certain vegetables and herbs for late fall or spring harvesting.
“This late in the season, most people lose interest in their garden,” said Eric Sideman, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association organic crop specialist. “But there are a lot of avid gardeners that raise much of their own food and want to have a longer growing season who plant in the fall.”
Sideman says to look for three things when deciding what vegetables and herbs to grow in the fall: the number of days until maturity on the seed packet; how frost-hardy the plant is; and the seed’s sensitivity to germinating in hot weather.
Though most fall harvest crops need to be planted at the beginning of August or end of July, there is still time to plant spinach, mustard, leaf lettuce and cilantro, said Sideman.
“There’s other things to plant if you build small tunnels,” said Sideman. “You can plant now and harvest into the winter.”
Most plants won’t grow in temperatures below 50 degrees, according to Sideman. The sun shines into the low tunnels, heating the crops, and the covering protects them from frost. Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Winslow sells a variety of season extenders such as row covers and wax paper domes called HotKaps.
Paul Lipsky, owner of A Stone’s Throw Farm in Newburgh, creates 3-foot-tall tunnels out of EMT conduit bent into half-ovals covered with Reemay fabric. In mid-November, he doubles the covering with greenhouse plastic.
The tunnels protect his spinach, lettuce and onions from frost, and then snow.
“Last year, I think we were harvesting spinach in December,” said Lipsky.
He keeps some crops in the tunnels over the winter to harvest in the spring.
“When you overwinter plants, they go dormant but don’t die,” said Lipsky. “Then, come mid-February, they will start growing again — quickly.”
Though he planted frost-hardy beets on Aug. 1, he’s thinking about planting a new batch.
“Part of it is experimentation,” he said. “Start it now and see what happens.”
Sprague’s Nursery & Garden Center has been open since 1948. Displayed in the 25,000 square feet of greenhouse space are shrubs, trees, annual plants and perennial plants. For information, visit Sprague’s Nursery & Garden Center at 1664 Union Street, Bangor, or call 942-1394.
A Stone’s Throw Farm in Newburgh is a MOFGA-certified organic farm. For information about the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, visit www.MOFGA.org.