Fallscapes on Cape Cod

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Writer: Susan Dewey / Photographer:

Planting in the autumn can give homeowners a great head start on year-round beauty.

Planting in the autumn

Chrysanthemums like these contain colors perfect for fall, which works well, as prefer to be planted during autumn months. Photo By: Anthony Dispezio

It may seem like a strange idea to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in the autumn, just when Mother Nature is slowing down and about to take a long nap. But the truth is that planting in September and October is often a very smart idea on the Cape and Islands because the soil is still warm from the summer sun, air and water temperatures have moderated, and water levels in the soil are neither too great—as is often the case in New England springs—nor at hot summertime lows.

Just like children, young plants thrive best in a consistent nurturing environment without highs and lows, which can stress tender roots leading to disease and poor performance for the plant in general. In fact, some plants actually perform better when planted in the fall, especially conifers like pine and spruce trees, which prefer higher soil temperatures than are often found on the Cape and islands in our cool springs. Certain deciduous trees like maple, ash, honey locust, crabapple, and elm also do well when planted in the fall.

Unlike many areas of New England where the fall planting window is quite small, Cape soils often don’t freeze until January, which means that trees or shrubs planted in September or October get a good, long growing season in before winter arrives. Come spring, these autumn plantings will have a head start on spring installations, which are frequently delayed for months due to late snowfall, heavy spring rains, or cool temperatures.

Anyone who tried to plant new trees, shrubs, or perennials last June on Cape Cod knows just how frustrating it is to be dreaming of a gorgeous new landscape in early summer only to be frustrated by temperatures stuck in the low 40s with wind chills occasionally dipping into the 30s at night. Far better to hit the nurseries (which often have sales at this time of year) in the early fall and get started on your landscape remodeling now.

Fall planting, just like spring planting, still requires careful consideration of each tree or shrub’s particular likes and dislikes as well as those crucial first steps for planting at any time of year: good soil, adequate hydration, sensible fertilization, and protection from environmental hazards like high coastal winds or exposure to salt water. Landscape professionals agree across the board that with fall planting, the right size hole for each plant is a critical first step. Or as the famous gardener’s quote goes: “Always a $10 hole for a $5 plant.”

Planting in the autumn

The idyllic vision of a cape cod cottage is accompanied by a white picket fence and blooming garden, but cannot be accomplished without proper planting knowledge. Photo By Anthony Dispezio

Barry Johnson, operations manager for Osterville’s H.F. Johnson Tree Farm, knows perhaps better than any landscape professional just how important spacious holes are for trees and shrubs transplanted into a new environment. A family owned and operated business serving Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Southern New England since 1920, the company specializes in the sale and transplanting of mature trees and shrubs from their own farms as well as from residential and commercial sources. With more than 20 acres of mature trees and shrubs from miniature Japanese maples to soaring redwoods and evergreens of nearly every kind, H.F. Johnson is a green eden for homeowners looking to get a head start on a dramatic new landscape.

Standing in front of the company’s enormous tree spade truck which can be used to dig trees up to 50 feet tall, Barry Johnson says the secret to success of fall planting is digging a hole at least twice the size of your new plant’s root ball if possible, whether the plant is container-grown or wrapped in burlap. “It’s really important to start out with the right size hole so that new roots have room to expand and take hold,” says Johnson. “We recommend that homeowners use good soil with lots of organic matter added like compost, blended at a 50-50 ratio with existing soil from the planting area.” Johnson explains that it is important to use a fertilizer with mycorrhizae, which promotes necessary fall root development.

“After the first frost, apply a 5-5-5 fertilizer with mycorrhizzae and then mulch each plant well with up to four inches of mulch, preventing soil temperature fluctuations,” says Johnson.
With a second location in Sandwich and another in Marstons Mills, H.F. Johnson’s nurseries are full of well-cared-for stock, with 70 percent grown at their farms and 30 percent culled from other growers.

Johnson notes that the balmy autumn temperatures on Cape Cod in September and October are perfect for many trees and shrubs. “The soil in the fall is much warmer here than it is in the spring,” says Johnson. “The plants experience much less transpiration.” An experienced nurseryman who works with his father and two brothers for H.F. Johnson, Barry explains that fall transplants should be watered until air temperatures reach 40 degrees consistently.

Planting in the autumn

Two yellow daffodils bloom together. Photo By Anthony Dispezio

Keith Stevens, a long time nurseryman at Country Garden in Hyannis, says fall planting is a great option for homeowners looking to add trees, shrubs, or perennials to their Cape or Islands environment. “The plants have a better chance of surviving through the heat of a Cape Cod summer when their roots have a chance to set in the fall,” says Stevens in a tour around Country Garden’s sprawling seven-acre nursery on West Main Street. “Most evergreens should go into the ground before October, but there are lots of great trees to choose from at that time, including Norway Spruce, Australian Pine, the different Arborvitaes and all kinds of Junipers.” Stevens says that certain evergreens, like the popular Leyland Cypress tree, do not flourish when planted in the autumn.
Agreeing with Barry Johnson that good compost and the proper size hole are crucial for fall planting, Stevens says the newly planted trees or shrubs should be watered every three to four days with a good deep watering applied into a well of soil around the base of each plant. “If plants are exposed to salt wind or ocean air, they should be wrapped for the first winter,” says Stevens, whose experience includes several years working on an Osterville ocean-side estate.

Stevens notes that homeowners should be careful not to purchase plants grown for too long as “B&B” stock, or “ball and burlap” as it is called in the nursery trade. “B&B plants have been dug up in the spring when the soil is really wet and so their roots are in clay,” Stevens explains. ”Clay holds a tremendous amount of moisture, which can really cause plant stress over a long period of time and with fast-growing varieties, the plant’s foliage can outgrow its root system.”

Perennials and roses are also great options for the fall gardener, says Stevens, noting that Country Garden’s spacious nursery features hundreds of perennial choices as well as a full selection of roses well-suited to Cape and Islands’ landscapes such as the popular KnockOut varieties. “Roses do really well with fall planting, but it is important to mound winter mulch protection around the canes, up to at least a third of the plant,” says Stevens. “We like use to salt marsh hay, which is native to Cape Cod, and will really protect the rose from winter damage.”

Stevens says that in the spring, roses should get a head start for big summer blooming with an application of RoseTone fertilizer every two weeks, supplemented by foliar feeding of an organic fertilizer like Neptune’s Organic Fish Fertlizer—and really good deep watering. “When the forsythia blooms, then it is time to remove the mulch and wake up the roses for spring and summer,” says Stevens.

Terry Soares, owner of Hatchville’s Soares Flower Garden Nursery, agrees with Stevens that evergreens planted seaside should be wrapped lightly in burlap. “You know, it’s interesting, but this is a subject I’ve just recently been discussing a lot with other landscapers,” says Soares who has been a landscape professional on the Cape for 29 years. “Some people feel that wrapping too tightly can cause more problems, leading to damage and disease. We like to wrap the exposed evergreens loosely, perhaps around several stakes to protect the plant.”

Planting in the autumn

Leyland Cypress trees, like this one seen here, grow best when planted in the spring. Photo By Anthony Dispezio

Soares says that she has noticed that cedars, like Leyland cypress, also prefer to be planted in the spring. Her nursery, which specializes in unusual and old-fashioned perennials and annuals, also plants lots of perennials in the fall. “It’s also a really good time to divide perennials,” says Soares. “But it’s really important with perennial divisions that they are properly watered until the ground freezes.”

Beach grasses, a huge favorite of Cape and Islands’ homeowners, should not be planted in the fall, says Soares. “We have learned that it is better to wait until mid-April or so to plant the grasses,” says Soares, noting that these perennials are susceptible to wind and ice damage, especially since ice can settle in the stalky crown of the plant, leading to root damage.
When planting perennials, trees, or shrubs, Soares likes to amend her soil with a combination of compost and peat moss. “I like to fill a wheel barrow with compost and peat and have it on hand if the hole we have dug needs better soil,” says Soares. “If the soil isn’t good enough, we mix in a few shovelfuls of that mixture. Either way we like to top dress the new planting with a few inches of the soil amendments.”

Bill Benoit of Chatham’s Safe Harbor Planting and Design, says poor soil can lead to inadequate root development, especially when trees and shrubs are planted in the fall. “The soil on the Cape is often sandy, which is really good for drainage—but plants also need compost to introduce microroganisms that activate soil breakdown, providing nutrients to the roots and the plant,” says Benoit, a former operations manager at Crocker Nurseries in Brewster. “We like to use either manure, leaf, or vegetable compost, applied in three equal parts with some sand as well as the hole’s existing soil.”
Benoit says his company’s customer base ranges from large estates to small homeowner plots as well as commercial properties. “Proper planting techniques are really important in the fall,” says Benoit. “The right width and depth of each plant’s hole and correct soil amendments need to be considered. Also, each plant’s chosen environment needs to be taken into account—what are the light conditions, how much wind is present, and the plant’s exposure to water are also critical considerations.

“It is challenging because every area is different, even on the Cape,” Benoit goes on to explain. “Even though most of the Cape is sandy, some places have a lot of clay, which can be really bad—or good—for plants. My rule is if the soil feels damp, don’t water it. If it feels dry, then water well. But all these horticultural considerations are important—especially when planting in the fall.”
Regardless of whether your soil is as sandy as a Cape Cod beach or one of those places where clay is a surprise, consider giving your gardens a boost this fall with the addition of properly selected and planted trees, shrubs, and perennials. When the forsythia bursts into bloom next spring, you can sit back and relax and wait for a season of healthy new beauty and variety in your landscape.

Susan Dewey is Associate Publisher and Editor of Cape Cod Life Publications as well as a Garden Club of America judge and a design consultant for Dewey Gardens of Centerville.

Susan Dewey

Susan Dewey, former associate publisher and editor at Cape Cod Life Publications, lives in Centerville where she grows vegetables and flowers for Cape farmers' markets, designs perennial gardens for her son’s company, Dewey Gardens, and enjoys living on beautiful Cape Cod year round.

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