Fall is excellent for planting, as long as you start with good plants. Photo: Steve Bender

Fall is the best time for planting almost any hardy plant. The weather feels great and plants aren't stressed by heat and drought. But before you fill up your 1978 Ford Torino station wagon featuring faux wood siding with every green thing you find at the garden center, make sure you DON'T DO these five things.

Mistake #1 -- Paying Top Dollar For Leftovers Would you pay the same for week-old bread as you would for fresh-baked? (If so, I have some lovely loaves covered with blue and green mold I'll be happy to sell you.Visa only.) Plants that have been sitting out in the heat, wind, and pathogen-infested air since springtime aren't worth what they first were. So only buy them at a steep discount. Why pay full price for a zombie perennial the garden center's going to throw out in a month?

Mistake #2 -- Bringing Home Unwanted Guests What's the unhealthiest place for your family? Your local hospital, because it's crawling with sick people.Yuck! Likewise, the unhealthiest place for plants is the local garden center. So many plants crammed close together makes an ideal breeding ground for insects and disease. So thoroughly examine the foliage and stems of any plant you buy now -- especially houseplants -- to ensure whiteflies, mites, and mildew aren't hitching a ride. Consider spraying each new purchase according to label directions with horticultural oil to safely dispatch any unseen freeloaders as soon as you get home.

Mistake #3 -- Buying Balled-and-Burlapped Trees Unlike container grown trees whose roots grow undisturbed in pots, balled-and-burlapped trees are dug from the field and their rootballs wrapped in burlap to hold them together. Problem is, this often cuts off most of the roots. If they survive, balled-and-burlapped trees just sit there for a couple of years after planting as they regrow their roots. Container-grown trees come with all of their roots and grow much faster after planting.

Mistake #4 -- Buying Semi-Tropical Plants That Won't Take Cold Can't tell you how many times I've seen garden centers in states that have cold winters get in big fall shipments of Chinese hibiscus, mandevilla vines, passion vines, and princess flower in full, glorious bloom. This means that unless you plan on growing these exotic beauties as houseplants, you have about a month to enjoy them before a hard frost comes along and kills them.

Mistake #5 -- Waiting Too Late to Buy Spring Bulbs Unlike fine wine, daffodil and tulip bulbs don't get better with age -- at least not in the garden center. They get moldy and dry up. The best time to buy is when they first arrive, so you won't be stuck with sorry, picked-over bulbs that may not bloom. October and November are the best months to plant. Hop to it!

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