Here’s an easy question for you: when do you think is the best time to plant, spring or autumn? Top marks to those who said autumn!
It may sound counter-intuitive, but autumn is the recommended time to plant new plants in your garden. Why? Although recent years have shown that you can’t actually rely on winter rainfall, it is generally likely to be wetter in autumn and winter than in summer, and new plants need plenty of moisture while they are getting established. So your new plants will either need lots and lots of watering, if you plant them in spring or summer, or you can give them the whole autumn, winter and spring to get established, before they are subject to the stress of summer drought. Put like that, it sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?
So why are garden centres full of plants in spring, and winding down in autumn? Well, that’s a difficult question. Partly, it’s convenience. Most garden centres don’t sell much in winter, so they’ve diversified into Christmas in a big way. As a result, by about late September, they want to have reduced their summer plants so that they can stock up on Christmas trees, decorations and presents. This means they don’t really want a huge influx of plants in late summer to sell for autumn planting. Secondly, it’s probably at least in part because most plants don’t really look their best in the autumn, so it’s harder to sell them. We’re all a bit guilty of preferring a showy-looking plant with lots of new growth to one that looks a bit sad, aren’t we? And so it’s easier to sell plants in spring.
But don’t be put off by unexciting looks. Yes, most perennials are shutting down in autumn, and will disappear underground almost as soon as you plant them, but planting in autumn will give them a real head start, especially if you add a bit of good topsoil (also written top soil) or tree & shrub compost at the bottom of the hole. Although underground, they will be growing roots at least until the frosts start, and because they can focus on the roots rather than roots and shoots at the same time, the root system will be stronger and more extensive. Come spring, your almost-forgotten autumn purchase will be ready to start sprouting. And its roots will be well-established, ready to help it withstand summer heat without much additional watering.
So if you’re wandering around garden centres over the next few weeks, do keep an eye out for bargains. Many garden centres are selling off tired specimens now, to clear space for Christmas, so you can pick up some really good perennials for good prices. And then come spring, your plants will have a real head start!