Fall is a great time to plant and divide plants

By Kath Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener A group I belong to was considering a fall plant sale since everything was canceled this spring due to the pandemic. One member commented “What’s the point?”. I thought there are probably a lot of people that think that gardening wraps up at summers end. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Fall is probably the best time to plant perennials, shrubs and trees.
Fall is a great time to divide spring and summer blooming plants including iris. If you’ve ever bought a fruit tree in the spring that is loaded with flowers, I’d be very surprised if the tree had a successful life. The tree has been in a pot for a good while so the roots are likely all girdled within the pot. You plant it and the tree’s natural inclination is to set fruit but it doesn’t have a good anchor in the ground. Fruit trees are best being purchased as one or two year whips in the fall. By planting in the fall the roots have time to establish by the time the tree starts flowering in the spring. Since you don’t see the roots you don’t realize that they do reach out during the winter months especially here in Southside Virginia, where our ground rarely freezes solid. And yes, reputable fruit tree companies will sell in the fall. Fall is a great time to plant landscape trees and shrubs for the same reason. The roots can become established while the green growth, except for evergreens, is dormant. Generally our fall and winter have adequate moisture throughout the season. This will also aid in plant establishment. Besides, you might be able to find a bargain because big box stores want to clear out the area for Christmas greens and local nurseries will close during the winter. You may wonder how late is too late. My parents had to move to assisted living in February. That meant that my Dad had to give up his small garden outside their apartment. I dug up all of his roses, brought them down here and heeled them in and this was all in February. As long as you can get a shovel in the ground, you can plant. Don’t forget about perennials. Fall is a great time to divide most spring and summer blooming perennials. Fall blooming perennials are better divided in the spring. Dividing is a simple task for fibrous plants. Just dig out the root ball and take a sharp knife and hack from the soil line straight down to the bottom of the roots. Plant some back in the original hole if the plant was happy there and either plant the other hunks in bare garden areas or share with friends. Dividing is especially a good option when plants are so dense they do not flower well. By the way, daylilies are often sold in bulb catalogs but they are not bulbs but have fibrous roots so are divided this same way. Dividing iris is a little trickier but not difficult. Dig up the clump. Cut off the foliage to about 3”. Although irises are sold in bulb catalogs, they are not bulbs but rhizomes. Therefore it is no problem cutting back the foliage to about 3”. Start separating the rhizomes by breaking off the small pieces that have a bit of root on them. Inspect the rhizomes carefully for pinpoint size holes which indicates the presence of borers. Discard these pieces but do not put in the compost. Also discard the large woody mother rhizome. Replant the small rhizomes making sure that the roots are covered with soil but the top of the rhizome is above the soil line. Again, plant some in the original spot and some in new places. It will probably take a couple of seasons for the iris to continue blooming but you will be rewarded with bigger and more blooms. If you are lucky enough to find some perennials on sale, don’t worry too much if the foliage is looking a bit ratty. It is that time of the year. Pull the plant gently out of the pot and take a good look at the roots. If the roots look fleshy the plant is viable. But if the roots are dried out, either pass on the plant or negotiate for a cheaper price so you won’t be out much if the plant dies. By all means, accept surplus perennials from friends. In the spring they will really flush out since the roots have had time to establish. I’d like to tell you that there are some fall plant sales out there but right now I am not aware of any. Looks like we will be writing gardens articles for the foreseeable future. If you would like to see an article on a particular gardening related subject, please email ask@ssmga.com or call the extension office at 434-830-3383 and leave a message indicating what topic you would like to see covered. While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings remain closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu. If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is checked timely and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask and divide and plant this fall.