Earth Matters: Planning to plant in fall

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In the heat of summer, garden work is mostly weeding and harvesting done as early as possible in the day. Planting is not a great idea as the high heat makes it hard for plants to establish. But planning for fall planting is a good activity when its too hot to work out in the yard.

Fall, late September through October, is the best time for planting trees and shrubs. Cooler temperatures and reliable rains give plants plenty of time to start establishing roots before going dormant in the winter, generally around Thanksgiving.

Take a walk around your yard. Observe where you have sun and shade, how long an area is in sun, is the shade dense or filtered? Places where nothing seems to be happy and why – dense tree roots, heavy shade, poor drainage?

What is your soil type – sandy, loam, clay, acid or neutral? Knowing these answers will start to create a plant selection. Trying to get a plant that likes moist soil live in a former sand mine is only asking for trouble.

Having killed a lot of poorly chosen plants early in my gardening career, I can vouch for how choosing for your sun and soil conditions will save a lot of grief.

How many non-native invasive plants have taken root, like English Ivy, Barberry, Bamboo, Asian Wisteria, Japanese Honeysuckle, Burning Bush, Privet, and Norway Maple to name a few.

Do you have native plants that are evolved in our ecosystem to support birds and wildlife? Do you need to create some privacy or lower maintenance? Ready to reduce your lawn?

The place to start is with the structure and backbone of the garden, trees and shrubs, and begin to create the layers of plants found in nature, from canopy to understory to ground covers. Each layer provides beauty and ecological services – habitat and food for birds and wildlife our homes have displaced. The idea is to have something blooming or fruiting or providing shelter for the entire year.

If you are lucky enough to have a mature shade tree – an oak, beech, hickory, tulip, native maple – that is your canopy. The saying that you “plant an oak for your grandchildren” is true.

Unless you have buckets of money and can afford to have an estate size tree planted, those trees will not mature in your lifetime. But do plant those trees, even if you won’t benefit, because future generations will thank you.

There are understory trees that will supply shade, flowers, fruit and fall color while not demanding a lot of space or taking decades to grow. My favorite is Amelanchier, aka Juneberry, Shadblow, Service berry and a few other common names. It’s a small tree or large multi-stemmed shrub with an open habit and light shade.

It has white flowers in May, delicious blueberry like fruit in June and golden fall foliage. Our native dogwood, Cornus Florida evolved as an understory tree, but because of blight that affects it in areas with poor air circulation, it now does best in full sun and good ventilation. It has lovely white flowers followed by a red fruit loved by birds.

There are plenty of native shrubs to choose from. Hollies (Ilex) need male and female for fruit and that is often the fruit that will last into winter as it requires freeze and thaw to be palatable for birds. American Holly (I. opaca) can grow into a sizable tree (40-50’ high and 20-40’ wide) but can be pruned to remain smaller or work as a hedge.

It was once the basis of mature woodlands on Long Island along with Oak, Beech, Tulip and Chestnut. Inkberry (I. glabra) and Winterberry (I. verticillata) are smaller shrubs offering berries. The Viburnum family offers a large number of natives with flowers and fruit; Arrowwood (V. dentatum), Nannyberry (V. lentago), Black Haw (V. prunifolium), Highbush Cranberry (V. trilobum).

One important caveat for planting trees and shrubs. When you select a spot for that innocent looking little 2’ tall shrub, believe the information that tells you it will be 6’ across and 8’ high at maturity. Don’t over plant.

It may take some time for the plants to fill in but it will save you a lot of work down the road, or even having to remove overcrowded bushes. If you want a planting to cover your house foundation, plant 4’ to 5’ away from the house, so they can be accessed and pruned from behind and kept off the siding. Do not plant any tree within 15’ of your house, and the larger the tree the farther away it should be situated.

If you are ready to remove invasives, add natives and create a habitat and enjoyable outdoor space, but this sounds overwhelming, there is help. I suggest joining the Long Island Native Plant Gardening Group on Facebook.

North Shore Audubon has a yard certification program and will offer advice on what to remove and what to add ( northshoreaudubon.org/use-native-plants/ ).

Many groups will be having native plant sales this fall. If you want to work with a designer or landscaper, make sure it is one who specializes in natives. There are online plant lists that will give you options. Long Island Native Plant Initiative www.linpi.org/native-plant-fact-sheets/, Cooperative Extensions https://blogs.cornell.edu/ccesuffolkligardening/category/native-plants/ , Audubon Native Plant Initiative www.audubon.org/native-plants

To get ideas and see how the plants work together, there are many public gardens to visit. Garvies Point Museum in Glen Cove has a bird garden and butterfly garden. Planting Fields has a bird-friendly garden. The Roslyn Art Museum has native plantings around the Manes Education Center. There is a small garden across the street from the Bayville Library. Clark Botanic Garden has a butterfly garden.

You don’t have to rip out all the non-native plants in your yard, but replacing a highly invasive species like Burning Bush (Euonymus Alatus, now a prohibited species in NY), with a native shrub is a great start to improving your habitat.

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