(Editor's note: This article was originally published September 8, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

In the spring, we are deluged with catalogs stuffed with pictures of beautifully perfect flowers and plants. "Buy me! Plant me!" they cry. The nurseries fill with plants, live and in person, all needing good homes. "Resist," I say. "The time is not yet at hand!" Planting perennials in the fall is a kinder, gentler way to plant.

Perennials planted in the spring have a tough row to hoe. They must:

  • Develop an entirely new root system
  • Adjust to life outside the greenhouse or nursery
  • Produce a crop of flowers (or lovely foliage, or whatever it is you're expecting of them)
  • Risk being planted too soon, before they have "hardened off" sufficiently
  • Risk being planted too late, in some of the most taxing conditions for a plant: the heat of summer

Many of the wiser mail order companies won't even ship during the hot days of June, July and August. I recommend the more nurturing method of planting perennials in the fall. If you plant your plants at least six weeks before the first freeze is likely to occur, you'll give them a chance to conserve their foliage and flower development in favor of root growth. If the roots are there, the plant will be there.

One of the stongest arguments in favor of fall planting is a good one for knuckle-heads like me: by fall, you know approximately what the plant looks like, how tall and maybe even what color it will be.

Platycodon very busy blooming - do not disturb!

This lovely balloon flower on the right (Platycodon) usually flowers during the heat of July. Don't plant it now! It's hard enough on the poor thing that it has to flower. Don't make it suffer transplant shock as well!

This next specimen, below, may look unhealthy, but it's the same type of plant, Platycodon, at the next stage of its life cycle: setting seed and hunkering down for the winter. If you see a plant like this for sale, especially if it's marked down, by all means, buy it and plant it! Make the hole nice and deep, back fill with amended soil and consider adding fertilizer or moisture crystals if appropriate for the plant and your climate and soil. Don't forget to water thoroughly after planting.

Platycodons finished blooming. They're ready to be planted.

My husband bought around 20 balloon flowers just like the one on the left for $2 each one fall and planted them as a border to a path. I may have found Dave's Garden in my effort to discover just what, exactly, he was getting us into! But sure enough, the next July, they looked something like this:

Now it's almost a tradition. In the fall, we shop for bargain plants, and then plant them before winter. One year the snow came earlier than we expected, and the bed he was working on wasn't quite finished. So that year, he actually planted perennials in half an inch of snow! What you Southerners may not realize is that snow only means the air up high is cold, not the earth. The new bed didn't freeze for another couple of months, giving plenty of time for the heuchera, viola, columbine, geum and potentilla to get established. They were all lovely the following spring, and most of them are still fighting it out.

So procrastinators, take heart. The best time to plant many flowering perennials may be right now!

Photographs courtesy of three gardeners and Gindee77. The balloon flower border is ours.