Essay: Fall tips for your landscape plants

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County

This has been a trying year for growing plants. We have run the gamut of weather possibilities, from a cold, wet spring to a hot, extremely dry summer. While we had a couple of large rain events in August (unusual for that month), the precipitation came down hard and fast. Most of the water ran off before it could percolate into the soil, making it valuable only to our reservoirs and ponds. Now, in the middle of fall, we have the typical back and forth of warm and cool days, but still little precipitation that is working its way to the plant roots. 

Because of this stress on established plants, we are not seeing the glorious fall foliage display that we anticipate each year. While there will be some good spots here and there, many trees will drop their leaves quickly after coloring up and others may just drop without changing.

Established plants should be able to make it through the winter if they have been growing in a site that is suited to their specific requirements (some plants like wet soil, others like dry with most in the middle). However, we need to make certain that our plants do not go into the winter without sufficient moisture surrounding their roots. In particular, any plants that were planted this growing season should receive an inch of water each week for the next month, unless we get equivalent precipitation that comes down slowly and can seep into the ground. Purchasing an inexpensive rain gauge can be a great investment. When a heavy cloudburst moves through the area, leaving puddles on the ground, it may seem like we got a lot of rain. The rain gauge, however, may only show a tenth of an inch of precipitation or so. Using a rain gauge will help you know just how much more your plants might need that week. 

Mulching these plantings, especially herbaceous perennials, will also help get these newly planted plants through the winter. For lawn trees, expanding the mulched area (removing more sod) will be a tremendous help to your tree. Grass roots are shallow, with tree roots found below. Any water that hits the lawn will be captured by the grass plants before it can work its way down to the tree roots. Reducing the amount of competition with the lawn will help you trees to thrive. 

There are other tasks to accomplish now that will pay off next year. Protecting your susceptible plants from deer browsing or rodent damage may involve putting up fencing to create a barrier between plants and animals. Applying an anti-dessicant to the leaves of your broad-leaved evergreens will help with moisture loss. Keep in mind that you should re-apply this throughout the winter when we have a warm day as the antidessicant can wear off over time. If you prefer to wrap your plants in burlap, be sure to not wrap the plant too tightly, allowing some space between the burlap and the foliage. A little extra attention now will pay off in the future.

A katsura tree with a healthy tree ring.