Fall Planting
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: [No name given]
Posted on: October 6, 1998

You were kind enough to point out where in your catalog I would find artemesia camphorata and I have ordered and received southernwood and four other plants (samphire, madder, winter savory, and true french sorrel).

These plants are for an herb garden near our country home near Albany [New York]. We received the plants in beautiful condition just as we were to leave for the country. BUT I decided to leave the plants home rather than risk the frost that was forecast. I thought it would be better to wait a week. Now the same risk is arising for this next period. The plants seem too small to withstand such brusque treatment virtually the moment after planting. I wouldn’t be there to uncover them and recover them for overnight periods. What to do? Do you have the same problems up there? How long can they wait as they are: outside, on an open but sheltered porch. The sorrel and one other seem particularly delicate, not the camphor. I will appreciate your guidance.

Albany, New York, is approximately the same zone as our zone 5. This fall has been an exceptionally mild and long one.

Contrary to widespread public misconception, fall is an excellent time to plant many herbs. Even small potted herbs can do very well. We are building a display garden as I write in Richters and we will be planting many hardy perennial herbs before winter arrives.

Yes, the risk is that small herbs will not be sufficiently established to get through winter. The biggest factor is frost heaving, causing plants to be lifted right out of the ground, exposing them to deleterious freeze and thaw cycles. But this risk can be mitigated somewhat by proper care before winter.

First, make sure that the soil has excellent drainage. The biggest cause of failure for overwintering herbs is poor water drainage. If the soil, for example, is a heavy clay type that holds water, then the roots will be waterlogged for much of the winter, and repeated freezing and thawing will easily kill small plants. Add sand and organic matter to loosen up soil and promote better drainage. Slope the beds in such a way to allow surface water to run off easily.

Second, make sure to mulch your new herbs. You can use a variety of materials, including clean straw, fallen leaves, branches, etc. The trick is to apply the mulch after the ground has frozen but before the first permanent snow fall. In our zone 5, the snow persists from the beginning of December, but with the mild year we are having, perhaps the right time will come later this year.

There are many advantages for planting in the fall. One is that overwintering indoors is often riskier than planting outdoors with perennial herbs. Some actually need a good freeze up once a year otherwise they will languish during the dark winter months and become susceptible to overwatering and disease.

Fall planting gives herbs a head start in spring. Some herbs need a long growing season to reach a good size and fall planting gives them a 1-2 month head start compared to spring-planted herbs.

With the exception of samphire, all of the herbs you ordered should survive the winter well outdoors. Of course, nature offers no guarantees, and you could discover your herbs dead next spring. Samphire is not hardy in zone 5, so you will need to winter that indoors. It needs little water so be careful not to overwater when growth slows in winter. There are several helpful articles on indoor herb growing in the Magazine Rack section of the Richters website you should look for more information.

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