It is not the approaching frigid weather that can cause a late season plant installation to be a loss. It has nothing to do with the fact that the plant is not rooted into the soil. Yes, a harsh winter without sufficient snow cover can cause a loss of plants in your garden or landscape. Winter plant loss is one of the drawbacks to living in a cold climate.

Cold climate gardeners, spring is not the only time for planting.

You can plant from spring through autumn, and fall is a great time for adding new plants to your yard and garden. Did you know you can plant right up to when frost stays in the ground? If done right, you will always enjoy success. If done wrong , you are almost guaranteed to loose plants in areas with a frigid winter climate.

Anyone living in the Snowbelt knows that over the winter…

The ground and everything in it or on it rises and falls through freezing and thawing temperature fluctuation. Thinking that this action of Nature applies only to the patches applied to holes in the road is an error. It also causes the loss of late season planting of ornamental plants.

Some plants bought in ball and burlap are safe from winter heaving.

The only plants that would not suffer injury or death from freezes and thaws would be those heavy, larger sized woody plants that were field grown in ground soils. These root systems usually weigh enough to not rise out of the insulation of the ground around them.

Lightweight nursery containers are so clean and easy to carry.

They will also be the first improperly autumn installed plants to heave above the soil line. This expanding and shrinking of the ground over the winter season affects any small or lightweight perennial, shrub and even small trees. It isn’t that you can’t plant after a shrub, a tree or even perennial has gone dormant either. You can successfully plant in your landscape and garden until frost sets into the soil and remains all day. As long as you are sure that the plant was thriving before the leaves fall for the season; it is better off in the insulating ground than on top of it.

Many people don’t grasp the importance of proper planting prep.

It is possible to dig a hole that is just large enough to comfortably accommodate the root plug earlier in the year and succeed with such time saving methods. In this situation, the plants have to work harder to spread roots into the surrounding soil, but will overcome the hardship when planted in spring or early summer. The best way to install any plant for faster root development, is in providing several inches of loose soil around and under the containerized root ball.

Bare minimum digging techniques spell disaster in autumn.

As a landscape contractor in Michigan, I suffered few losses though planting until the frost remained in the soil. I didn’t plant any differently on October 25th than in late May. That is until the day that Helen arrived to have a fabulous new entry garden created.

Helen’s garden was installed in mid October.

By spring only 20%  of the plants in this destined to be gorgeous garden remained. The situation was that beneath the mulch were two layers of weed barrier over hard compacted clay. I wanted to remove it and deeply till the soil. Unfortunately, I was  emphatically told we were not to disturb the weed free space. Customer being king, I complied with their demands. We were allowed only to make a necessary sized slit in the landscape fabric for each plant installation… for hundreds of perennials.

It was very difficult planting in that rock hard clay.

Only small hand trowels could be used for digging. Upon completion  of planting, I checked everything to make sure all was done correctly. The homeowners were ecstatic. Thanking us all profusely, they waved goodbye on October 21st. Two weeks later they called complaining that several plants found halfway out of the ground. No need to drive out there though, they had already been replanted.

If this were true, I would have found them at final inspection.

The following June, I received a nasty letter from Helen reporting that 80% of the new plants were dead. Our winter was mild with excellent snow cover. I had no other plant losses even on projects that were planted after hers. The plants in my own garden hastily sunk in November were doing great. Nothing unusual or questionable was planted in this woman’s garden.

This supposed disaster was unbelievable and a mystery.

Then I remembered the husband’s report of root balls sitting half way 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. Then I learned that another landscaper had already visited and told them exactly what I was prepared to. The man admitted the disaster was entirely his fault.

Lack of proper soil preparation cause of the planting’s failure.

Always dig your hole wide enough and deep enough to allow at least this much back fill with nicely loosened soil when planting in late autumn. Plants that are installed with at least 3-inches of loose soil all the way around the roots, as well as under them, will survive the ground heaving them up into the frigid air.  Why?

The entire section of disturbed soil will rise and fall in one piece.

When the ground heaves any patches or plugs rise above the rooted in and stabilized whole. Without the barrier of freshly loosened soil, the bare roots of the foreign object are pushed up out of the insulating soil. Acting as a blanket of insulation, the loosened soil moves up and down with the weather protecting your new plant.

Helen’s plants not only died from improper autumn planting…

They completely disappeared. Roots, potting medium and all. The winter wind carried them far, far away from the huge expanse of her once again very empty mulch bed. This is one reason why using landscape fabric is not any benefit to enjoying a lovely flower garden. Loose soil is your plants’ best friend.