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Home, Garden, and Car Care Special Section The Altamont Enterprise, October 8, 2009

In autumn, neutralize your soils and plant perennials

By Anne Hayden

Although it may seem counterintuitive with the cold weather fast approaching, local gardening experts say fall is a great season for planting the bulbs, shrubs, perennials and trees that bloom so beautifully every spring.

Peter Bowden, spokesman and garden expert for Hewitt’s Garden Center, said people often forget that now is the time to plant, and then, when they see things bloom in the spring, they want to put the same flowers in their yards. Unfortunately, they are too late, Bowden said.

According to Bowden, bulbs for flowers such as daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths need a period of cooling to trigger their growth. Planting them in the fall gives the bulbs all winter to establish and spread their roots, he said.

Mark Gade, from Gade Farms on Western Avenue in Guilderland, agreed with Bowden. He said fall is the perfect time to plant perennials.

“Planting perennials in the autumn is ideal because it gives them enough time to root out and establish, but you’re past dealing with the stress and transplant shock that can occur in summer,” said Gade.

In the hot and humid weather, the roots don’t have time to spread and tap into the groundwater system before they are affected by the climate, Gade explained. However, plants don’t face that risk in the fall, and, though the perennials will soon die back when the cold weather hits, the root system will live, and in the spring the plants will grow and bloom, he said.

Fall and cooler weather also means extra moisture from morning dew, reducing the need to water, Gade said.

Both Bowden and Gade emphasized the importance of adding organic matter to the soil when planting anything long-term, like perennials, trees, and shrubs. Compost and peat moss would work, said Gade, but his primary recommendation was bone meal, a material Bowden enthusiastically suggested as well.

Bone meal is basically sterilized, ground bones, often a byproduct of beef, according to Bowden.

“It contains a lot of phosphorus, which stimulates root and flower growth, but it releases it in a slow, safe way,” Bowden said.

Unlike other types of fertilizer, bone meal should be placed directly into the hole dug for the bulb or plant, because it needs to go below where the roots are going to grow. It doesn’t dissolve or wash through the soil, but sits until the plants use it up, Bowden said. He said bone meal will not work if it is just sprinkled on top of the soil, but can last anywhere from three to five years in the ground.

Before going ahead with fall planting, Bowden said it is important to have the soil tested. Soil becomes acidic over time, he said, due to rotting materials, like leaves and wood chips, and also as a result of acid rain and some commercial fertilizers. Acidic soil has a harder time absorbing water, which can lead to plant and grass death, and an over-abundance of weeds, said Bowden.

A lawn grows best in neutral soil, with a pH level of seven, and soil that is too acidic can be treated with lime, Bowden said.

“The reason to treat soil in the fall is that it can take eight to 10 weeks for the lime to take effect. Treating it in the fall gives it plenty of time over the winter, so that there is a nice neutral soil in the spring, and you don’t waste any growing time treating it,” said Bowden.

Any good garden store will carry a home testing kit for soil, and the Cornell Cooperative Extension can also test it, according to Bowden.

One other point both Gade and Bowden made was that most garden stores have good sales on bulbs and perennials in the fall, because they are looking to move them out before winter. It’s a great time for a bargain, Bowden said, because, even if the leaves or flowers look dry or dead, the roots and stems are still in good condition, which is what matters since the plants will go dormant in winter anyway.

“Sometimes the bargains are so good that I buy plants that I have no plan for, but the price is so good that I can’t pass them up,” said Bowden.

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