Getting Perennials Ready for Spring Now

The air is cooler. Days are shorter. Plants are losing their summer luster. Fall flowers are blooming. Now is the time to get ready for spring! Right?

Getting Ready

Perennial plants are always getting ready for the next season. In the spring, they are getting ready to grow and flower. In the summer, they are in full-swing with blooms and leaves. By fall, they are storing food in their roots, getting ready to go dormant. In the winter, perennial plants are reading gardening books to find out who their new neighbors will be.

You can help perennials get ready for spring by feeding them in the fall and doing a few maintenance tricks. This advice is for all perennials: lawns, flowering plants, shrubs and trees. For specific instructions for exotic plants, contact your local nursery or county horticultural extension agent for help.

Food for Winter

When perennials begin growing in the spring, they rely on food reserves that have been stored in their roots the previous fall. By fall-feeding plants, you help make sure that roots are filled with food reserves. This helps ensure perennials will survive winter's ravages and will be ready to grow vigorously when spring arrives. According to Mike Archer, research coordinator for Milorganite, "Using fertilizers that are high in water insoluble nitrogen keeps this nitrogen in the soil until plant roots can take it up. Using a slow release organic nitrogen fertilizer such as Milorganite 6-2-0 that is high in water-insoluble nitrogen keeps this nutrient from leaching into groundwater."

Trees - Fertilize trees just as their leaves begin to die off. At this time, trees are rapidly moving food reserves into their root systems. An extra helping of a slow release fertilizer, which won't burn roots, helps trees survive the winter and begin growth in the spring. A slow release organic nitrogen fertilizer such as Milorganite 6-2-0 allows this safety. Milorganite products also contain a high amount of organically complexed iron which helps trees overcome early spring chlorosis, or yellowing. This is especially noticeable with many maple trees.

Lawns - Northern lawns should be fertilized around Labor Day. This keeps them in good condition so their roots are full of reserves for winter and early spring. Another late fall fertilization after lawns quit growing but before freeze-up gives grass the nutrients it needs to survive the winter. Research at the University of Wisconsin indicates that northern lawns continue to need nutrients even when they are not actively growing. Starving lawns during early winter sets the stage for winter-kill.

Southern lawns are trickier to fertilize in the fall. Even though southern lawns benefit from a fall application of fertilizer, don't fertilize these lawns within 30 days of dormancy. If you fertilize too late, you will encourage growth when they should be entering dormancy. This causes winter kill. According to Dr. George Snyder, professor emeritus, University of Florida, "Use a fertilizer high in iron, such as Milorganite 6-2-0. This keeps your lawn looking nice and green without causing excessive growth. This green stays on even when lawns are not actively growing."

Other perennials - Fertilize other perennials such as forbs (broad-leafed herbaceous plants) and shrubs in the fall. This helps them accumulate food reserves in their roots, getting them ready for winter and early spring startup. Generally, this means an application around Labor Day in order for nutrients to be taken up by the plants and transferred to root storage.


Some fall seasons you cannot go without your umbrella. And sometimes, you continually hear the crisp sound of leaves as they rustle about without the dampening effects of rain. If this is the kind of dry weather you are having, it is especially important you water your perennials. Without adequate water, perennials cannot move nutrients they need to survive the winter into their roots. Water deeply, to rooting depth. Shallow watering only teases plants and, in some cases, may do more harm than good.

According to Archer, "Watering plants in the fall is arguably the best insurance against winter kill. Water deeply and thoroughly. Water while plants still have their leaves and are actively getting ready for winter."

Cleaning Up

House cleaning is not just limited to your house. Your garden plants also need regular cleaning to keep them healthy. Depending on your preference, removing dead plant debris can be done either in the fall or early spring. By cleaning up in the fall, you are giving plants a head start in the spring by not allowing debris to shade the ground from early spring sun. By waiting for spring, you are giving local wildlife a chance to eat seeds and collect debris for winter nesting. Thus, many gardeners wait for spring to clean up to give winter wildlife a better chance for survival.

No matter which you choose, definitely remove debris by the time plants begin growing in the spring. Removing this debris will also remove hibernating insects, their eggs, plus disease spores that have over-wintered in these stems and leaves. Don't put debris known to be infected in your mulch bin. Instead, bag it and place it in the trash so you don't infect new growth.

Tree leaves - Use your mower to mulch leaves when they fall. Some leaves, such as from maples, lie flat on the ground and will smother grass. Mulching leaves speeds their decomposition into nutrients. Sharpening your mower blade will give you better results.

Now, sit back, relax and start dreaming of spring. Your work will be rewarded, if not by a perfect yard, by one that will withstand the ravages of winter and be ready for you next spring. Enjoy!

Courtesy of ARA Content