Yes, it’s true. Fall is a great time for planting perennials, trees and shrubs. After all, when they’re in the ground early, they’ve got a little extra time to get themselves established before the next growing season. But if you don’t take the time to plant right, the outcome can be disastrous.

Planting hole

Step 1: After amending your soil, sit your plant – still in its container – next to the hole you’re digging to help you gauge how big it should be.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of CJ Jewel

Container in hole

Step 2: Put the container in the hole to ensure you’ve got the proper planting depth.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of CJ Jewel

Planted perennial

Step 3: Remove the plant from the container, loosen the compacted soil (and free it of large chunks), then plant.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of CJ Jewel

Here’s the key when it comes to successful fall planting: Don’t take any shortcuts. That means proper bed preparation and digging the correct planting hole sizes. The best way to install any plant for faster root development – any time of the year – is by providing an ample area of loose soil around and under the containerized root ball. Many people don’t grasp the importance of proper planting prep. But truly, the easier you make it for the roots to grow, the faster your plants will become established.

Using a bare-minimum approach to planting in late fall is a recipe for disaster. All it takes is a few freeze-thaw cycles to heave up improperly planted material. Combine that with a winter that offers little to no snow cover (which won’t help insulate roots), and you’re guaranteed to lose a lot of plants.

When I was a landscape contractor in Michigan, I did a lot of fall plantings – and I didn’t plant any differently on Oct. 25 than I did in late May. And despite the fact I planted late into the fall season (even with light frost on the ground), I suffered few losses. This was 100 percent true until I was hired to create “Helen’s” fabulous perennial garden.

Helen hired me to design and install a huge planting in October. We arrived to plant and discovered that beneath the mulch were two layers of weed barrier over hard, compacted clay soil. I wanted to remove the fabric so I could till and amend the soil – to get the plants off to a good start. Unfortunately, I was emphatically told we weren’t allowed to disturb the weed-free space. We were only given permission to make the necessary plant-size slits in the landscape fabric and to plant from there.

It was difficult planting in that rock-hard clay. When finished, I checked the plantings to make sure everything was done as correctly as possible, given the fabric situation. The homeowners were ecstatic – and the garden looked great. Helen and her family thanked us profusely and waved goodbye on Oct. 21. Two weeks later, they called to complain that they found several plants halfway out of the ground. (We were informed that “Mr. Helen” had already replanted them.)

The following June, I received an unpleasant letter from Helen, reporting that 90 percent of the new plants were dead – despite the fact our winter was mild with excellent snow cover for good root insulation. I had no other plant losses reported from our other fall plantings – not even at the jobs we planted after Helen’s garden was installed. Even the plants in my own garden, put in the first week in November, were doing great.

Helen’s failed perennials seemed almost too hard to believe. Then I remembered her husband’s report of root balls sitting halfway out of the soil before frost arrived. I made an appointment to meet with the couple that evening. Upon arriving I was greeted with a huge expanse of mulch marred by intermittent empty holes. I learned that another landscaper had already visited and told them exactly what I was prepared to explain to them: The lack of proper soil preparation was the cause of the planting’s failure! That landscape fabric needed to go.

So don’t learn the hard way like Helen did. Remember, landscaping fabric can always be replaced – and it doesn’t even cost that much. But not preparing a bed properly from the start can cost you an entire garden! Be sure to provide every plant you put in the ground with at least 3 inches of loose, amended, nurturing soil all the way around the roots, as well as under them, to help your plants survive any ground heaving and to allow the roots to grow more easily into the surrounding soil. As long as you don’t take any shortcuts with your fall plantings, you “autumn” be enjoying what you put in your garden – from fall and beyond!