Roots and Shoots: Fall Planting and Fertilizer

I’m a fan of fall flowers, although if you’d asked me in July, I would have said mid-summer was best. Blame my capriciousness on living in the moment. 

New England Aster

New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) with a fuzzy bee visitor (Photo by P. Doan)

At this moment, the fall seems best because of the two types of goldenrod and four types of asters, plus the sedums and Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans), that spread themselves around, appearing as a single connection through the front flowerbeds. They knew better than I did. 

Complementing the stars of the party are a patch of Joe-pye weed that’s a few weeks later than the rest, sedums, Rudbeckia with pops of white snakeroot flowers along the trail in our woods. These plants are busy, too, with buzzing and fluttering. 

When I walk by with the dog, birds fly out of the pokeweed, where they are enjoying a feast during a stop on their migration. On the patio, butterflies-to-be are munching the parsley and dill to bare stalks. 

For sure, this is the best moment in the garden. How could I have thought otherwise?

This week, I’ll tackle a few reader questions. 

What kind of manure can I use on the garden?

Animal manure (never pet waste) can be a foundation for soil-building and nutrients for plants. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as micronutrients, come from manures. A farmer would want an analysis to determine the values but home gardeners probably don’t need this. 

Cow, poultry, horse and goat manure is the most commonly used. Poultry manure has the most complete profile of nutrients because the others are bedding animals and that breaks down as organic matter but doesn’t raise the nutrient value. Since we are what eat, the quality of manure depends on the diet and care of the animal. 

Bacteria are the main concern for manure-fertilized vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture developed guidelines through the National Organic Program about how to use manure safely. These are intended for commercial farmers but any gardener should follow it as a best practice. 

The NOP says that uncomposted or fresh manure should be applied 90 days before harvest if the part of the vegetable you eat doesn’t touch the soil. This could be corn, beans on a trellis or grains. If the edible part of the vegetable makes contact with the soil, manure should be applied 120 days before harvest. This includes root vegetables and greens. 

Composted or processed manure usually refers to manure that has been heated up to 115 to 160 degrees for a specific period to kill the bacteria. If you are composting manure in your backyard, you might not hit those marks. Another option is to let it sit longer.

Because I am a lazy composter who doesn’t turn the pile often enough or combine my browns and greens in the right ratio, to be on the safe side I let the chicken manure age for 120 days and apply it at the beginning of the growing season so it will be 6 to 8 months old before I harvest anything. There is flexibility to adapt the guidelines but follow them as a minimum. 

Is it OK to plant in the fall?

Fall involves less maintenance since the plants are going dormant. I am transplanting seedling chokeberry shrubs (Aronia arbutifolia) soon that I have been growing in containers all summer. I’ll need to water them until the first frost but then can stop for the season. Next year they will be established and I won’t have the watering demands. If I’d planted them earlier, just more watering time… 

Plugs, an industry name for immature plants, are also great for planting at this time of year. They will go dormant soon and be ready to start with a full season of growth next spring. Since many perennials take three years to hit their potential, you’ve already logged one year without having to stare at small plants all season. 

Trees, like shrubs, are happy with fall planting. The cooler temperatures are less stressful for transplants and many of the pests that bother trees have gone away for the year. 

Mulch any new plantings, preferably with untreated wood chips. This will stabilize soil temperatures to help prevent it from being damaged during the heave/thaw cycle as the ground freezes and heats up during our unpredictable winters. 

There were other questions but that’s all I have space for this week. Next time! Email me at [email protected]

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