Plant Ahead for Spring

Prepare your garden in the fall for a beautiful surprise next spring.

Photo: Ralph Anderson

Only seven flats of annuals and a few choice perennials went into this bursting flower border. Given the span of just a few months, the front yard looked like a cottage garden. The plants added appeal and charm. It hardly resembled the barren earth that surrounded the house not long ago. If you want a colorful spring garden like ours, you have to realize that the real work starts in the fall. 

This curved flowerbed, which runs along the edge of the gravel parking area, is 4 1/2 feet wide and 66 feet long. A small bed of Zoysia grass sweeps across the front edge of the border. This makes the narrow flowerbed accessible and easy to work from both sides of the border. Weeding and planting can be done without having to step all over plants or compact the loose, freshly tilled, and amended soil.

The area receives lots of direct light, so we used sun-loving plants. We put in a few die-hard perennials such as two ornamental grasses (Miscanthus sp.), one butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.), one Rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), and some 'Homestead Purple' verbena (Verbena canadensis 'Homestead Purple'). The plan was to install a few perennials each year and keep the open spaces covered with seasonal flowers.

To fill in the open areas, we used foxgloves, pansies, violas, snapdragons, and sweet Williams. We wanted lots of pink, yellow, purple, and white bloomers in the border because these colors blend well together. On a cool autumn day, we planted seven flats to produce a colorful April and May border. Each flat contained 36 little plants. When setting them out, we worked a little timed-release fertilizer into each hole.

After the fall planting, little maintenance was needed. A blanket of pine straw mulch covered the ground, keeping most weeds out and helping to protect the new plants. We checked the border once a week and quickly pulled any weeds. Little watering is needed in the winter, unless you're experiencing extended dry spells. The pansies were groomed occasionally by removing spent blooms. We did have to cut back the snapdragons after a few subfreezing nights turned their foliage brown, but cutting them back actually made them fuller in the spring. The tall foxgloves were supported using twine and a bamboo stake for each plant.

Why plant in the fall? The plants actually grew little in the fall and winter months, but underground roots began to spread, creating good anchorage and a strong growing base. The spring sun warmed the soil, and the tops of the plants began to flush with new growth. The foxgloves that were about 6 inches in March quickly grew to 4- and 5-foot-tall, multicolored spikes by May. Don't forget to set out plants in the fall for lots of spring blooms.