Most people who want to renovate their landscapes think about it during the winter when they have cabin fever or in early spring as they anticipate the renewal of growth. However, the best time to think about it is fall which is the perfect time to prepare the soil for planting. Fall tends to be relatively dry while spring tends to be relatively wet. The worst time to work with soil is when it is wet because most of our soil in the Cleveland area is heavy clay. Heavy clay does not drain well and working it when it is wet makes it compact even more.
The ideal soil is loose, full of organic matter and micro-organisms, and is well-drained. My favorite organic material is leaf humus, basically composted leaves but well composted manures also work well. My Indianapolis friend swears by rabbit manure. If the size of his plants are an indicator, his rabbit manure soil is manna from heaven. My other soil ingredient is inorganic, an enlarged aggregate that goes by several names (Turface, Haydite, Infield Soil Conditioner). This material enhances drainage greatly but also retains some moisture until it is needed. It consists of hard particles that are much larger than grains of sand but not as large as gravel. A soil mixture of these two materials is very easy to dig in and allows roots to grow easily.
Mid-fall is a great time to plant trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses. With the advent of cooler temperatures, top growth is slowing down or has stopped but roots continue to grow because the soil is still warm and all the energy of the plant is going into the roots. Fall root growth means that the plant can concentrate its spring energy into the leaves and flowers. The cool temperatures also mean that the plants do not have to contend with dehydrating strong sun and high temperatures. This does not mean, however, that plants installed at this time do not need to be watered. They absolutely do, particularly if they were balled and burlapped, meaning that in the process of digging, some roots were left behind.
I have just finished an installation for which the design was created during the summer, the soil was amended last week, and the trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses were planted this week. A new arbor has been installed and within the next few weeks, a small stone patio will be installed as part of the planting bed. The perennials and roses will be planted as soon as they are available next spring. Getting a head start now means that the garden will be completed by April and early May rather than late May and June.
It’s not too late for you to get started. As long as bed lines are established, design could be done this winter. Even if you are not interested in redesign, you might want to improve the soil in your beds. You can do this by mulching your beds with leaf humus, instead of shredded bark, right on top of fallen leaves. For heaven’s sake, do not rake leaves out of your beds, only out of the lawn and groundcover. They are Mother Nature’s way of adding organic matter to your soil.