Though most of us get the itch to garden in the spring, fall is the best time to plant wildflowers, trees, and shrubs for wildlife. That's because fall plantings have time to recover from transplant shock before new growth begins.
After an entire winter in the ground, a transplant's roots have had time to acclimate to the new environment. Transplants grow vigorously in the spring. Fall planting gives vegetation a biological head start.
There are three ready sources of wildflowers, trees, shrubs, and vines. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
The cheapest source of plants is the woods. Here are some guidelines to follow. Always ask permission before you uproot plants on anyone else's property. Be sure you can identify the plants to collect; you don't want poison ivy climbing the porch next spring. And when you find the plants you want, take as much root and soil as possible when removing the plant.
Over the years I've transplanted a number of trees and shrubs from the woods below my house to the yard. That's where I got the flowering dogwood that accents the southeast corner of the house. And a redbud I transplant more than 20 years ago is now the focal point of the backyard.
I transplanted the lilacs that serve as an effective dust screen by our dining room windows from my mother's backyard in southeastern Pennsylvania. It's always a pleasure to walk by those aromatic blooms each spring. When I smell lilacs, I think of my mom.
I also took a few eastern red cedars from mom's place many years ago. These are evergreens that invade abandoned old fields.
They produce small, hard berries that help bluebirds, robins, mockingbirds and cedar waxwings make it through the winter. Unfortunately, they are all gone now; over the years we used them as Christmas trees.
Mail-order nurseries offer home delivery, and most guarantee their plants will grow. But be sure to save the shipping label. It's required for refunds or replacement.
The problem with mail-order plants is that they are usually small, and it takes several years to reach an attractive or fruit-producing size. So if you're looking for immediate results, mail-order may not be the best way to shop.
Nature centers, garden centers, and nurseries offer a number of advantages that mail-order cannot match - plants are adapted to local conditions, sales people are usually knowledgeable and can offer valuable advice, and plants are usually large and establish themselves more quickly.
And these sources often offer sale prices in the fall.
And remember, plants are an investment. A thoughtfully landscaped yard not only provides privacy, beauty, and wildlife habitat, it also adds economic value to your property that only time can provide. Hummingbirds and butterflies descend on backyards that feature nectar-bearing wildflowers.
And properly placed, trees can reduce a home's energy costs. Large deciduous trees growing on a home's south side create cool summer shade. And rows of large conifers on the west side protect the house from freezing winter winds.
On the down side, many nurseries cater more to landscapers than wildlife gardeners.
I've had little luck, for example, finding native nectar-producing plants for hummingbirds such as trumpetcreeper and trumpet honeysuckle. Look for wildlife plantings at nature centers that promote "native species."
The list of plants suitable for fall planting is long and subject to individual taste and landscaping objectives. Here are a few more species I've had luck planting in the fall.
Crab apples, oaks, mulberries, mountain ash, and white pines are some of my favorite trees because they provide year round pleasure - winter perches for birds, spring blossoms, summer greenery and fall fruit.
Shrubs such as native roses, raspberries, blackberries, and viburnums screen out roadside dust and noise while also providing nest sites and food for a variety of birds. Plus my wife and I get to pick wild roses, blackberries, and raspberries every spring.
And don't forget to plant some native perennial wildflowers this fall. Butterfly milkweed, bee balm, and Joe-Pye-weed are a few of my favorites.
If your backyard plans include adding new plants for next year, get a head start this fall. Just be sure to get started before the ground freezes.