Fall gardening: Plant Now For a Spectacular Winter

October 19, 2016 7:18am

Imagine sitting by a fire, enjoying a hot cocoa as the winds gust outside. How’s the view out the window? Conjure a Japanese maple which sets off fireworks of fall color before revealing its winter pose, a pieta in swirls. At its feet, a symphony of bulbs emerge in turn, from snowdrops to daffodils and alliums. You’d have a riveting vision from October through May. Warning: It may be hard to leave that chair.

Kubota Gardens' star Japanese Maple

Kubota Gardens’ star Japanese Maple alone is worth the trip. Image: Erica Grivas

If your view needs some tweaking, there’s still time. Contrary to popular belief, despite the cooler temperatures, fall is a great time to add new plants and bulbs to your garden. The ground is still warm, and there’s definitely enough rain. As long as the ground is neither frozen nor a slurry of mud, dig away. And of course pots can be planted anytime.

Great choices to plant now:

  • Evergreens. They make any garden better.
  • Deciduous shrubs with winter interest in flowers, striking fall color, unusual bark, or that simply rock a cool shape. Some favorites include: Maples (Acer), witch hazels (Hamamellis), red- and yellow-twigged dogwood (Cornus), Sophora, and Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus).
  • Spring Bulbs. From now through December, plant a succession of flower power. Group in tight drifts, as many as you can, for the best show. Plant in a sunny location (under deciduous trees counts as sunny in spring), with fluffy soil, three times the depth of the bulb. Have a small space? Layer them like lasagna, with the largest bulbs like hyacinth and tulips at the bottom and muscari and crocus near the top. Tip: Mark their place with tags or stones to avoid slicing them up in summer, or plant your annuals next to them.

But what about food?

You can still plant some winter crops like spinach, kale and leeks if you have a covered space, like a cold frame, or raised bed under hoops. The rest of us can plant garlic now for spring harvest.  It’s a great time, however to sit down by the fire and study through those seed catalogs to plan out next year’s abbondanza. Aren’t you glad you planted that gorgeous view?


At the DeWitt Winter Garden at the Washington Arboretum, the blazing dogwoods pull you into the hazy frame of heather, hamamellis and hellebore flowers, all set off by the glossy evergreen tree.