Mums, asters, tulips, daffodils and lawns top many gardeners’ fall planting lists in the Midwest, but the season is also the best time to plant garlic, other spring-flowering bulbs, perennial flowers, and many species of shrubs and trees. Asparagus and strawberries, more commonly planted in the spring, can also be planted in fall. Fall planting gives plants a chance to establish their root system, essentially giving them a jumpstart on the upcoming growing season.
Garlic performs best when planted in late September to mid-October. Get garlic for planting at a garden center or purchase organic garlic from your favorite grocer. (Organic garlic is preferred because other garlic may be treated with a growth inhibitor.) Select a large, firm bulb(s).
Separate out cloves from the head to plant individually. Make a row/trench or press them down into the soil into an area with each clove set 4 to 6 inches apart and about an inch deep. Water over extended dry periods. Harvest when tops start drying down in late spring to early summer.
Shallots, multiplier (bunching or walking) onions, and elephant garlic are all planted similarly and are also best planted in fall. Space larger bulbs farther apart to allow for growth.
Tulips and daffodils may steal the show in spring, but hyacinths, crocus, alliums, and other less common spring-flowering bulbs are suitable to the Midwest too. Plant in September through November after obtaining bulbs from your favorite local garden center. Plant bulbs 2-3 times as deep as the bulb is tall and spaced accordingly for personal preference. Bulbs require zero care through the winter and will reward your fall work with their blossoms in spring.
Any perennial flower that is hardy in this area can be planted in the fall. Lawrence is in USDA Hardiness Zone 6, so plants labeled as 6 or below should survive winter here. The most important care for fall-planted perennials is effective watering, especially during extended dry periods. Water newly transplanted and/or divided perennials deeply and infrequently to encourage deep root growth until the ground freezes. If the ground thaws over the winter and there is little precipitation, water on days when the temperature is above freezing.
Most shrubs can be planted in the fall in the Lawrence area in the same manner as perennial flowers. Evergreen shrubs such as junipers and arborvitaes especially need extra water, as their needles can desiccate in cold, dry winter winds. They will also transplant best in early fall to give their roots time to get growing before the ground freezes. Azaleas, rhododendrons, and yews prefer spring planting.
Trees are a little pickier than shrubs and perennials about when they are planted. Evergreen trees, like evergreen shrubs, are best planted in early fall to maximize root growth prior to the drying winter. For other species, Morton Arboretum in Chicago says that in general, fast-growing species are best planted in fall while slow-to-establish trees are best planted in spring.
They list crabapple, hackberry, honey locust, elm, linden, maple, sycamore, pine and spruce among other species for fall planting. Baldcypress, ginkgo, magnolia, tuliptree, willow, and others are best left to spring.
Although oaks were left off both lists, horticulturists and landscapers in the area anecdotally recommend spring planting for most oak species.
Asparagus can be planted from early October to mid-November in Kansas or in the spring. Purchase crowns from a garden center or order them. Dig a trench about 8 inches deep for planting and set crowns in it about 12 to 18 inches apart. Cover with soil until the tops of the crowns are about 2 inches deep. After the sprouts emerge from the soil, fill in the trench a little at a time until the soil levels out.
Leave asparagus to grow the first year rather than harvesting to help the plant build its root system and get established. After the first year, it can be harvested each spring.
Fall-planted strawberries often have better yields than spring-planted plants. Set in the ground in September to October at a depth so the crown of the plant is slightly above the soil surface. When temperatures drop below 40 degrees, mulch plants with straw or other loose plant material. Commercial growers often use row cover and black plastic to push fall-planted strawberries, but home gardeners may find these systems to be labor intensive.
All fall-planted plants should be watered deeply and infrequently during extended dry periods, even (and especially) during the winter.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.