Deciding when to plant perennials

Perennials tend to be rather tough and forgiving plants in terms of picking the right time to plant them, but generally, most people plant perennials in either the spring or the fall.

Perhaps the best way to know when to plant perennials is to know when not to plant them. For example, avoid planting perennials in stressful conditions, or you will, as the saying goes, reap what you sow. No-no times include

1 Any blazing hot day 1 Any time of drought 1 Any time when frost is predicted 1 Any time when the ground is soggy or still frozen 1 Right after a deluging storm or flood

Read on for some seasonal planting advice.

Spring planting

Springtime is the preferred time to plant perennials for good reason. All the conditions these plants relish and respond to are in place: warming soil, warm sunshine, longer days, moist ground, and regular rainfall. Roots quest into the ground, taking up water and nutrients to fuel growth, and top growth — foliage, stems, and flowers — surges forth.

When getting ready for spring planting, make sure you do the following:

1. Harden the plants off.

Just like you wouldn't plunk a new goldfish into its tank without letting it adjust to the temperature, you don't want to give your perennials an environmental shock. Let new plants adjust to life outdoors for a few days or a week by sitting them in a sheltered spot, such as on the porch or against the semi-shady side of the house. Start the plants off for just a few hours, and increase the time until they're outdoors 24/7. (But bring perennials indoors or cover them if there's a threat of a late frost.) Cover them with single layer of newspaper to reduce the light intensity and wind exposure.

2. Choose a cool, cloudy, or damp day to plant, or plant in late afternoon.

The hottest part of the day (midday to early afternoon) is a bit stressful to both you and the plants!

3. Plant in good soil, create a basin of soil or mulch around each plant, and give a good, soaking watering.

Check that the water drains in where you want it.

4. Mulch after planting.

Not only does this step hold in soil moisture and moderate the effects of fickle, fluctuating spring temperatures, but it also keeps weeds at bay (they love to grow this time of year, too).

Here are some things perennials find very unpleasant. During spring planting, do not

1 Handle the plants roughly.

1 Plunk a root-bound plant into the ground. Either tease apart the roots a bit or lightly score the sides with a sharp knife, which inspires new root growth. Then you may place the perennial in its planting hole.

i Plant perennials in waterlogged ground, or drench them right after planting. A moderate dose of water is a needed drink; too much water prohibits oxygen from getting to the roots, and the plants literally drown or rot.

Fall planting

Autumn turns out to be a fine time to plant many perennials in temperate climates. The soil and air are cooler now and sunlight is less intense, so the weather's less stressful for newcomer plants. Competition from weeds isn't likely to be a big problem, either.

In some regions, rainfall becomes more regular, too, which helps provide the moisture the perennials need to start good root growth. And their roots do grow — the plants simply aren't programmed to start producing lots of new leaves or flowers at this time of year. Yes, the perennials will soon head into winter dormancy, but fall planting often gives these perennials a head start over their spring-planted counterparts.

When spring rolls around, you may notice the difference. The fall-planted perennials should be raring to grow, larger and more robust. You can expect a good show. All this, plus you won't have to elbow through crowds at the garden center. You now know something that many gardeners don't. Seize this opportunity!

Fall planting also applies to perennials you want to dig up and move to a new spot and to divisions (strong, rooted pieces of overgrown plants).

When getting ready for fall planting, make sure you do the following:

i Buy good, strong plants. These plants have the best chance to establish themselves in your garden.

i Mulch a little at planting time, about >2 to 1 inch, to hold in soil moisture and warmth; mulch even more as winter arrives, another 2 or 3 inches after the ground freezes, to protect the plants during the cold months. (For more info on mulching options, see Chapter 4.)

i Cut back the top growth, just to further urge the plant to concentrate on root growth.

■*/ Here are some things to avoid during fall planting:

i Fertilizing: Fertilizing inspires a fresh spurt of young shoots and leaves, which are vulnerable to cold damage. You want perennials to enter their winter dormancy.

i Plant late-bloomers: Late bloomers (like asters, mums, black-eyed Susan, and perennial ornamental grasses) are better planted in spring.

Make doubly sure, before you find out the hard way, which plants relish fall planting and which do not. You can always double check at wherever you buy perennials in the fall. Reputable nurseries don't sell plants that resent being planted this time of year. Some fall-planting favorites are daylilies, peonies, oriental poppies, and rhizomatous iris (for info on plants with rhizomes and bulbs, see Chapter 8).

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