Planning fall gardening activities can be compared to preparing for or experiencing retirement: invest in something you can enjoy immediately, something that will mature in a few months, and something that will have lasting benefit. Here are some planting investments you might consider this fall.
For immediate satisfaction you can plant several flowers to enjoy in the fall and throughout the winter months. Pansies come to mind first. If you plant them in October not only will they bloom nicely throughout the fall, they will develop a substantial root system that will carry them into late spring. You may find Panolas at some garden centers. These plants were developed from pansies and violas. They tend to out-perform standard pansies and some have extremely large blooms.
Kale and Flowering Cabbage are impressive plants for both fall and winter. They feature colorful leaves in shades of purple or variegated green and white. Some have curly leaves and others have leaves that look like lace. These plants are very low maintenance, but sometimes they can be damaged by severe ice or snowstorms. I have had good luck covering them with old towels or a blanket held down with bricks or rocks when an ice storm is threatening. If you try this method, be sure to wait until the ice melts to remove the blanket. If you don't, you are likely to remove some leaves with it. (I know this from experience.)
Another nice attribute of these plants is that in the spring they have stems of flowers. If you remove the stems after the blooms are spent, the plant will continue to be attractive during the summer. Or if you grow tired of them, just cut the plants back about an inch above the ground, score the stem with an "X" and you are likely to get multiple heads of Kale or Cabbage in return.
For beautiful spring returns, be sure to plant some bulbs this fall. You'll have more reliable results if you purchase your bulbs shortly after they become available or order them so that they will be shipped at planting time. Store them in a cool dark place until you are ready to plant.
Many types of bulbs are available. I have had good luck with hyacinths and daffodils returning to bloom year after year. Tulips, on the other hand, probably need to be planted every fall, as a fairly low percentage will return the following year. If you have the space in your yard or garden for more bulbs, take advantage of closeouts during December or early January. I have planted daffodils and tulips here in Shawnee, which is in climate zone 7, as late as January and had good results.
In our garden, we have followed the practice of planting daffodils with daylilies. By the time the daffodil leaves begin to brown, the daylilies have appeared and mask the drying foliage. Be aware: daffodil bulbs get their food from this process, so it is important to leave the foliage intact until it withers.
As you formulate your fall planting plans, it is perfectly "legal" to get some "inside" perspective. Several years ago a local landscape designer impressed on me the importance of considering the view from inside your home when planning your outdoor landscape. We have tried to follow that practice ourselves, so now, as we look out from our kitchen, from a favorite chair, or while eating, the view is attractive. We have even positioned several bird feeders in the yard that we can see and enjoy while at our breakfast table.
One of the loveliest plants we can see from our breakfast room is Hellebore, whose common name is Lenten Rose. This evergreen perennial plant begins forming blooms about the end of January, and it is not adversely affected by freezes. After the plant freezes and thaws, it is just as hearty as before, continuing to grow and produce blooms that look like small bells suspended from the limbs. The blooms are attractive floating in a bowl for a centerpiece. By June the blooms have changed from pink to cream color and are ready to be removed by the first of July. Horticulturists have developed many other choices of bloom color.
I cut our Hellebores back to the ground about January 1 and they start putting up new shoots within a few days. The Helebore was selected as an Oklahoma Proven perennial in 2008. Go to oklahomaproven.okstate.edu and click on 2008 to see a photo and additional information. Be sure to plant it in shade and ensure it has moist but well-drained soil amended with compost, peat moss, or some other humus-rich ingredient.
Although Hellebore can be grown from seedlings that will sprout around a mature plant, ensure you get the bloom color you want by purchasing your first plant from a garden center. And be patient; this unusual plant takes a while to get well established.
For lasting benefit, fall is a good time to plant trees and container-grown shrubs. The plants won't suffer the stress of hot weather and can develop their root system during the fall and winter months. Before you purchase your plant, take care to determine its size at maturity and whether or not it needs sun or shade. More than once I have bought a shrub such as holly or yew and planted it in a place where it grew too large for the space or was damaged by too much exposure to sun.
In addition to planting trees and shrubs in the fall, consider developing a raised bed for a vegetable garden. Benefits include the ability to develop an ideal soil mixture in the bed and ease of maintenance. Many of us have heavy clay soils that are not very well suited for vegetable gardens. I have seen some very practical and attractive raised beds that used concrete blocks for sides with concrete patio tiles placed on top. If the bed is about four feet wide and a comfortable height, you can easily sit on the edge to tend the plants.
Master Gardeners in Norman, Oklahoma City and Tulsa have demonstration gardens featuring different styles of raised beds. A visit to one of those gardens at their county OSU extension center would provide ideas and encouragement. Call ahead to see when they are open.
Finally, here is a suggestion for making wise use of some of your existing assets during the winter that might otherwise sit idle until spring. Take some of your large decorative pots, the ones that are normally filled with annuals or tender perennials from April through early November, and fill them with colorful branches from your yard. For example, if you have Nandinas, strategically remove about a dozen limbs after the leaves have turned red/orange. Punch holes in the upper quarter of a one-gallon milk container so that the limbs can be inserted through the hole giving the appearance of a plant. Fill the container with water and place it in the decorative pot. The limbs will stay fresh looking for about six weeks. After that you can remove them and either install fresh limbs or leave the pot empty until warmer weather arrives.
Some of these suggestions may encourage you to invest a little time and money in a project that will provide both immediate and long-term returns. If you do, I hope that you are pleased with the dividends.