Autumn might not seem like the busiest time in a gardener’s calendar. Surely with the fading of blooms and dropping of leaves, this must be a quiet time compared to spring and summer. Actually, few things could be further from the truth. Fall is on a par with my busiest spring weeks. You’d be hard pressed to find a serious gardener who would not agree. 

Aside from the clear-up from the garden year just gone, these next few months are key to getting next year’s garden in place. Digging dahlias, planting bulbs, and building compost heaps for sure. But now is also the perfect time to be planting trees, shrubs, and perennials. 

Why now?

The ground is still warm, and the chances of drought are minimal. The plants will have a few months to get settled before going dormant. Installing these larger plants now will give them a much better chance of survival and mean they are ready and waiting to burst into their full glory next spring. (In case you were in any doubt, planting in mid-summer is not a good idea!) 

There are some good deals to be had in buying these now (although do be wary of the root-bound pots that have been sitting in the garden center for months on end). Just don’t be deterred by the cut-back stems of a barren-looking plant. You’re far better off planting them at this stage than in full-bloom anyway. Labels and Dr. Google can be invaluable if you really can’t picture what a plant will look like in bloom, but as with plant shopping at any time of year, it is far better to plan what you are after before you even get in the car.

Size, structure, and longevity

For this month’s design issue, I thought it would be helpful to run through some elements to consider when investing in these larger plant materials so that in our excitement, costly mistakes – both financial and emotional – are not made. 

Let’s start in order of the size, structure, and longevity that each category offers. So, first up: trees! 

Every long-term gardener will tell you the best time to plant trees was twenty years ago. Maybe so, but definitely, when designing your garden, plant any trees first, as these, along with shrubs, are going to form the structure of your garden. You want to be sure that when it comes to planting, you have really considered their positions carefully. Not just for now, but in a few years when their roots, height, and canopy width will have changed dramatically. Most other plants can be moved with varying degrees of ease later on if need be. Trees not so much.

One of my basic rules to garden design, which applies especially when choosing trees, is “don’t plant it if you don’t love it.” Don’t be swayed by passing fads or tempted by what the garden center has on end-of-season sale. The trees we plant now should outlive us. So, make whatever you chose something you actually want to watch become part of the landscape. 

From dull to wow!

Trees can serve a multitude of roles in the garden: structure, shade, screening vertical height, fruit-bearing. Once whichever of those necessary boxes are ticked, I pick mine by what they can give when the rest of the garden is not so exciting and they can take the spotlight. Think spring blossom or fall leaf color. We planted some maples along our driveway that were pretty average … until October. Mundane throughout the rest of the year, when they drop their leaves, even the red carpet they leave behind is spectacular.  Likewise with the crab apples that line our roadside hedge. The two weeks of wedding confetti white blossom they give in May when it’s still too early for much other excitement earns them their keep for the other 50 weeks of the year. 

Not all trees can have a wow factor. We had to create a screen along one side of our property that required planting my not-so-favorite evergreen arborvitea. I’m never going to be in raptures over it, but I do love how it serves its purpose perfectly all year round. So, even if it’s not your first choice aesthetically, make sure there’s something else to love about the trees you plant. 

Shrub it up

Next up: shrubs. These are defined as small to medium-sized woody plants with multiple stems. They can be deciduous, in that they lose their leaves every year – think viburnum, lilac, or ninebark – or evergreen – for example yew and boxwood. These latter plants are the best way to create all year-round structure and interest. Consider them the skeleton of your garden. 

With both trees and shrubs, you really want to be sure that you are planting them in the right place. The famous English garden designer and champion plantswoman Beth Chatto coined the phrase “right plant, right place,” and I can’t think of a truer sentiment in gardening. Sunlight, shade, soil type, and moisture are all key to your plants’ success. This is true for all plants, from an oak to a zinnia seed. But it is with trees and shrubs that you will really get to appreciate the wisdom of Beth’s words. Most gardeners know patience is a virtue and appreciate the three-year concept of “sleep, creep, leap.” When it comes to your new tree or shrub suddenly leaping, it’s like winning the lottery! But this will only happen if the plant in question is in the right place.

Perennials, the lazy gardener’s favorite

Once you have your structure and larger plant material in place, it’s time to move on to perennials. My husband describes these as plants that can actually fit in the back of the car without either hazardous driving, significant financial outlay for delivery, and/or vast amounts of swearing. They are indeed much easier to manhandle than trees and shrubs. 

Unlike annuals, which grow, bloom, and die in the space of a year, perennials are the plants in your garden that will return each year and require minimal fuss. Think of them as the lazy gardener’s favorite. They come up in the spring, hang around all summer, and die back in the fall, going dormant all winter. Even better after a couple of years, they can be lifted and divided giving you a new stock of plants. 

The key to remember when planting these if they have been cut back for the year is how much space they require – not just when in full bloom next summer but also as they grow year on year. It can be tempting to cram them too close together. Make sure to give them the space that is clearly suggested on the label. Once they are in however, it’s easy to fill any gaps with bulbs now or annuals next spring.

Our last few summers have definitely been challenging gardening-wise. After this year’s deluges and the ensuing lack of a break from constant mowing and weeding, it may be tempting to hang up the gardening gloves ASAP. However, don’t miss this perfect opportunity to enhance, upgrade, or further embellish your garden for next year. You will have so much to look forward to next spring! •

 Pom Shillingford is an obsessive gardener originally from England and now based in Salisbury, CT. She offers seasonal cut flowers through English Garden Grown. Find her on Instagram @english_garden_grown.