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So we took your advice and cut out all the brown a few weeks ago. We went so far as to take some things out because they really don't thrill us anymore. If we can find the plants, can we plant in fall? We want more perennials but we're hoping for an end of season clearance sale! How late in fall? - S.C. -
Fall is a great time to plant. Root growth is key to plant establishment and roots grow like crazy from when nighttime summer heat ends until fall's hard freezes begin. (In our neck of the woods that's third week of August until some time in November, nearly three months.)
However, you can plant now. We do. There may be more deals to be had during the slow shopping days in August than in September. We saw perennials for $3 each or 10 for $25 at the farmers' market recently. Dollar figures aside, there's always a "sale" going on after midsummer, based on what small potted perennials can give you by the time they take their turn to bloom next year.
Another good thing about late summer shopping is that it's simpler to focus on late blooming perennials. They're more likely to impress you now and go into your cart. They'll fill the color gaps in your garden, carrying on after the bloom's done on those that caught your eye during spring shopping.
We also love small pots any time of the year for a quicker "take."
That small potted plants become established more quickly, with less water, is a matter of geometry.
Right: A four inch square pot has 16 square inches of water-collecting surface we must keep moist. A six inch round has 28 inches. Keep that surface moist for a sunny week. (Notice the ridge of soil around the plants -- we've told you before, in What's Coming Up #110 and What's Coming Up #38, how watering rings help with watering and establishment!) Both plants may then extend their root tips an inch in all directions. That makes the four inch pot 225%
of its former self. Meanwhile, the six inch pot has only expanded
to 179% of its planting-day area. Having more than doubled its
water-collecting area the smaller pot is further on its way to independence.
Don't buy just any perennial in a small pot, however. Take only those with leaves that have good color and size, a sign that they've been handled as befits a plant with limited root space. Forum Moderator Karen Bovio of Specialty Growers says Yes we do have plenty of small pots... yet to be shifted up to gallons for next year's crop. We are very good... at keeping things in great shape here. It all boils down to water and fertilizer and some timely cutting back."
Right and below: This may seem like it would hurt the plant but it helps, by breaking up the log jam of root tips where they'd congregated at the bottom of the pot. After the cuts, root tips exist all over the root ball's outer edges and sides. Since root tips are where growth occurs, that cut root ball has more places with a chance to grow.
Plants still in small pots in late summer or fall are often rootbound. When you cut and split that root ball it will grow out of its tight configuration. If you don't cut it, you'll be amazed when you dig it up because "It's just not making it," that even years later it's still be in a little bitty wad of root. Just remember the tipping-over willow tree where rootbound- became girdling roots (What's Coming Up #155) and you'll know what we've seen on plants from Azalea through Hibiscus to Zelkova.
So what you see above is what smart growers do when up-potting small plants. They make sure it has plenty of root ends all around the outer edge of the container, rather than only in a knot at the bottom where they would all be vying for the moisture in that relatively small area.
Below: Some plants in small pots are not rootbound in later summer. That includes those grown specifically for late summer sale. Our friend, Forum Moderator Margaret Thele, let us de-pot one of the Belgian mums she sells at the Farmers' Market to show you the root system. Such beauty! These roots are perfect, no cutting required.
Below: Although buying large perennials can satisfy the urge for immediate bulk, these perennials in four inch pots will establish more quickly and be as big or bigger next spring than larger plants of the same type set in the ground the same day this summer or fall. Grower and Forum Moderator Thele says, "You can buy two or three larger perennials if instant fill is what you need, but for the same amount you can buy this whole garden of plants that will grow as big or bigger by next spring."