Pots, tubs, and half barrels overflowing with flowers add appeal to any garden, but container gardening can serve a practical purpose too. Container gardening is ideal for those with little or no garden space. In addition to growing flowers, gardeners limited to a balcony, small yard, or only a patch of sun on their driveway can produce a wide variety of vegetable crops in containers. Basil, chives, thyme, and other herbs also are quite happy growing in pots, which can be set in a convenient spot right outside the kitchen door.

Container gardening also adds versatility to gardens large and small. Plants lend instant color, provide a focal point in the garden, or tie in the architecture of the house to the garden. Place them on the ground or on a pedestal, mount them on a windowsill, or hang them from your porch. A pair of matching containers on either side of the front walk serves as a welcoming decoration, while container gardening on a deck or patio can add color and ambiance to such outdoor sitting areas.

You can use single, large containers for outdoor decoration, but also consider arranging groups of pots, both small and large, on stairways, terraces, or anywhere in the garden. Clusters of pots can contain a collection of favorite plants — hen-and-chicks or herbs used both for ornament and for cooking, for example — or they may feature annuals, dwarf evergreens, perennials, or any other plants you’d like to try. Houseplants summering outdoors in the shade also make a handsome addition to container gardening. Window boxes and hanging baskets offer even more ways to add instant color and appeal.

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Containers planted with a single species — rosemary or a bold variegated ornamental grass, for example — can be stunning garden accents. Containers planted with a mix of plants are fun to create and offer almost unlimited possibilities of combinations. The best combinations depend on plants that feature handsome foliage and flowers produced over a long bloom season.

One easy guideline for choosing the plants to combine in a container is to include “a thriller, a spiller, and a filler.” That translates to at least one focal-point plant (the thriller), such as coleus or a geranium with multicolored leaves, for example, combined with several plants that spill over the edge of the pots — such as petunias, bacopa, creeping zinnias, or ornamental sweet potatoes. Finally, add the fillers, which are plants with smaller leaves and flowers that add color and fill in the arrangement all season long. Good fillers include salvias, verbenas, ornamental peppers, and wax begonias, as well as foliage plants like parsley or licorice plants. You may also want to include a plant for height, such as purple fountain grass. Add a trellis or pillar to a container and you can use a vine to add height to the composition. You’ll need a total of five or six plants for an 18- or 24-inch container, for example.

Container Sizes

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Keep in mind that it’s easier to grow plants in large containers than small ones. That’s because large containers hold more soil, which stays moist longer and resists rapid temperature fluctuations. Small hanging baskets are especially prone to drying out, and during hot summer weather, you may have to water them twice a day to keep plants alive.

It’s also important to decide what plant you want to grow in each container. Several factors help determine how large and deep the container must be. Consider the size and shape of a plant’s root system; whether it is a perennial, annual, or shrub; and how rapidly it grows. Rootbound plants, which have filled up every square inch of the soil available, dry out rapidly and won’t grow well. Choose a large pot or tub for a mixed planting, one that will offer enough root space for all the plants you want to grow. Light-colored containers keep the soil cooler than dark containers.

The maximum size (and weight) of a container is limited by how much room you have, what will support it, and whether or not you plan to move it. If your container garden is located on a balcony or deck, be sure to check how much weight the structure will safely hold.

Container Drainage

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Whatever container you choose, drainage holes are essential. Without drainage, soil will become waterlogged and plants may die. The holes need not be large, but there must be enough that excess water can drain out. If a container has no holes, try drilling some yourself. A container without holes is best used as a cachepot, or cover, to hide a plain pot. Cachepots (with holes and without them) are useful for managing large plants and heavy pots: Grow your plant in an ordinary nursery pot that fits inside a decorative cachepot so you can move them separately.

Self-watering, double-walled containers, hanging baskets, and window boxes are available. These are a useful option for dealing with smaller plants that need frequent watering.

Container Materials

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Each type of container has merits and disadvantages:

Clay or terracotta containers are attractive but breakable and easily damaged by freezing and thawing. In Northern areas, most need to be stored in a frost-free location to prevent cracking and are not suitable for hardy perennials or shrubs that will be kept outdoors year-round.

Cast concrete is long-lasting and comes in a range of sizes and styles. These can be left outside in all weather. You can even make attractive ones yourself. Plain concrete containers are very heavy, so they are difficult to move and not suitable for using on decks or balconies. Concrete mixed with vermiculite or perlite, or concrete and fiberglass blends, are much lighter. For a lighter pot with a concrete look, go with hypertufa.

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Plastic and fiberglass pots and planters are lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and available in many sizes and shapes. Choose sturdy and somewhat flexible containers and avoid thin, stiff ones — they become brittle with cold or age.

Containers made of polyurethane foam weigh up to 90% less than terracotta or concrete containers, yet they look remarkably like their much-heavier cousins. Polyurethane foam containers resist chipping and cracking and also insulate roots against both hot and cold temperatures, making them a good choice for potting up plants that will stay outside year-round.

Wood is natural-looking and protects roots from rapid temperature swings. You can build wooden planters yourself. Choose a naturally rot-resistant wood such as cedar or locust, or use pine treated with a preservative. (Don’t use creosote, which is toxic to plants.) Molded wood-fiber containers are sturdy and inexpensive.

Metals are strong, but they conduct heat, exposing roots to rapid temperature fluctuations.

Container Preparation

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Since containers are heavy once they’re filled with soil, decide where they will be located and move them into position before filling and planting. If keeping them watered during the day is a problem, look for sites that receive morning sun but get shaded during the hottest part of the day, even if you’re growing plants for full sun. Afternoon shade will reduce the amount of moisture plants need.

While your containers must have drainage holes, it’s not necessary to cover the holes with pot shards or gravel before you add potting mix. The covering won’t improve drainage, and pot shards may actually block the holes. Instead, prevent soil from washing out by placing a layer of paper towel or newspaper over the holes before adding mix. If your container is too deep, you can put a layer of gravel or Styrofoam in the bottom to reduce the amount of potting soil required.

Plain garden soil is too dense for container gardening. For containers up to 1 gallon in size, use a houseplant soil mixture. For larger containers, use a relatively coarse soilless planting mixture to maintain the needed water and air balance.

Pre-moisten soil either by watering it before you fill containers or by flooding the containers with water several times and stirring. Be sure the soil is uniformly moist before planting.

If you are planting a mixed container, ignore spacing requirements and plant densely; you will need to prune plants once they fill in. For trees and shrubs, trim off any circling roots and cover the root ball to the same level as it was set at the nursery. Firm the planter mixture gently and settle by watering thoroughly. Don’t fill pots level to the top with soil mixture — leave space for watering.

Selecting Plants for Containers


Almost any vegetable, flower, herb, shrub, or small tree can grow successfully in a container. Dwarf and compact cultivars are best, especially for smaller pots. Select plants to suit the climate and the amount of sun or shade the container will receive. If you are growing fragrant plants, such as heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens), place containers in a site protected from breezes, which will disperse the perfume.

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Use your imagination and combine upright and trailing plants, edibles, and flowers for pleasing and colorful effects. Container gardening can be enjoyed for one season and discarded, or designed to last for years. When designing permanent containers, remember that the plants will be less hardy than usual because their roots are more exposed to fluctuating air temperature. Nonhardy plants will need to have winter protection or be moved to a sheltered space. So consider how heavy the container will be and decide how you will move it before choosing a nonhardy plant.

Vegetables and Herbs

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You can grow vegetables in individual containers — from large pots to 5-gallon buckets or half barrels, the largest of which will accommodate a single tomato plant or several smaller vegetables such as broccoli or cabbage. Dwarf or bush forms of larger vegetables such as tomatoes, pumpkins, and winter squash are most suited to container gardening.

Theme gardens also are fun to try. Plant a salad garden with colorful lettuces, dwarf tomatoes, chives, and parsley. Or perhaps try a pizza garden, with different types of basil, plus tomatoes and peppers. Or plant a container with edible flowers such as marigolds, pansies (Viola × wittrockiana), and nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus).

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For containers that remain attractive all summer long, look for warm-weather annuals that bloom all summer or have foliage that remains attractive. Geraniums, marigolds, wax begonias, coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides), scarlet sage (Salvia splendens), and flowering tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) are all good choices, but you will find many, many more in garden centers and seed catalogs. Experiment, and if one plant doesn’t work out, don’t worry about it — just cut it down and try something else. For large containers, dwarf cannas and dwarf dahlias also make satisfying additions.

Perennials and Shrubs

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Containers planted with hardy perennials and shrubs can be grown and enjoyed from year to year. Hostas and daylilies are great container gardening plants, but many other perennials work as well. Try ferns, European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), sedges (Carex spp.), lavender, lamiums (Lamium maculatum), sedums, and lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.). Ornamental grasses are great in container gardening, too, as are dwarf conifers and small shrubs.

Container Gardening Care

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Water container plants thoroughly. How often depends on many factors such as weather, plant size, and pot size. Don’t let soil in containers dry out completely, as it is hard to rewet. To keep large containers attractive, spread a layer of mulch as you would in the garden. This will also help retain moisture. Be sure to keep mulch an inch or so away from plant stems.

Container gardening plants need regular feeding. Fertilize them by watering with diluted fish emulsion, seaweed extract, or compost tea. Or foliar feed by spraying the leaves with doubly diluted preparations of these solutions. Start by feeding once every two weeks; adjust the frequency depending on plant response.

Since containers are focal points in the garden, you will probably want to give them special attention to keep them looking their best. Remove tattered leaves and deadhead spent flowers. Prune back plants that get leggy or stop blooming. To keep mixed pots attractive, dig out or cut back any plants that don’t grow well or that clash. You can add something else or let other plants in the container fill the space. Keep an eye out for pests like aphids and mites.

Soil Preparation and Planting Procedures for Ornamental Plants in the Landscape

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Gary Wade, Extension Horticulturist

  • Selecting Plants
  • Holding Plants Until They Are Planted
  • Planting in Individual Holes
  • Planting in Beds
  • Planting Annuals and Herbaceous Perennials
  • Staking and Guying Trees
  • Trunk Wrapping
  • Care of Newly Planted Ornamentals
  • Steps for Planting Success

Proper planting is essential for healthy, vigorous growth of ornamental plants in the landscape. It assures rapid plant establishment by providing a favorable environment for the developing root system.

Planting involves more than merely digging a hole and sticking a plant in it. Giving careful consideration to the preparation of the planting site, the time of year for best plant establishment and the handling requirements of different nursery stock will help you avoid problems later on.

This publication offers step-by-step guidelines that will help you achieve planting success.

Surveying the Planting Site

Before planting, survey the site for potential hazards to plant growth. For instance, new construction sites are often littered with pieces of mortar, plaster or limestone, creating an alkaline soil condition and inhibiting a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. Chemical spills, such as motor oil or gasoline, can also impair plant growth. It may be necessary to remove the top 6 to 8 inches of soil and replace it with a good grade of topsoil. Compacted soils also inhibit root growth.

Figure 1. Ornamentals can be grown on poorly-drained soils if they are planted on raised beds.

Poorly drained soils cause plant problems. Waterlogged soil will suffocate the root system and kill a plant. Improve poorly drained sites by deep tilling to break apart a layer of hard packed soil, or “hard-pan,” several inches below the soil surface. Slope beds planted near a foundation away from the building, and route water from drain spouts away from plant beds. On extremely heavy soils, construct a raised bed, 12 to 18 inches high, of well-drained topsoil, and slope the sides of the bed away from the plants to avoid pockets of standing water. Another option is to install a sub-surface drainage pipe to carry water to another area (assuming there is somewhere for the water to drain).

Soil samples, taken two to three weeks before planting, will determine lime and fertilizer requirements. Your county Extension agent can provide you with details on how to take a soil sample for testing. The University of Georgia’s Agricultural and Environmental Services Lab also has soil test kits available for purchase online at http://aesl.ces.uga.edu/soil/Georgia.htm.

Selecting Plant

Always purchase fresh, high-quality plants. Poor-quality plants are not a wise investment.

Most ornamental trees and shrubs marketed today are grown and sold in containers, although field-grown plants, sold balled-and-burlapped or packaged bare-root, are also available during certain times of the year. Container-grown plants should have healthy, vigorous tops and white feeder roots on the outer edge of the root ball. Do not be timid about inverting a few plants, removing their pots and examining their roots. Container-grown plants generally transplant well throughout most of the year with minimum shock, although fall and winter months are the best time to transplant.

Figure 2. Woody ornamentals for the landscape are commonly sold three ways: container-grown (left), balled-and-burlapped (center) and bare-rooted (right).

Large trees and shrubs grown in the field are often sold balled-and-burlapped. Because a large portion of the root system is destroyed during digging, they transplant best during the cooler months (October through April). Some trees are grown and marketed in fabric bags, and can be transplanted throughout the year, although the fall and winter months are best.

Packaged bare-root plants, such as roses, should have plump, healthy stems and good root systems that are kept moist in a packing substance like sphagnum moss or wood shavings. The best planting time for these plants is from December to mid-March.

Holding Plants Until They Are Planted

If plants cannot be planted right away, place them in a shaded area and keep the roots moist. If balled-and-burlapped or bare-root plants must be held several days before planting, cover their roots with sawdust, pine straw or soil to conserve moisture. Avoid placing the roots in water or buckets for long periods of time because they will suffocate. Container plants may need daily watering.

Make sure plants are well watered before planting and ensure the root ball is thoroughly wet. A dry root ball is difficult to rewet after transplanting.

Planting in Individual Holes

The old adage “never put a ten-dollar tree in a two-dollar hole” applies when planting individual trees and shrubs. Research at the University of Georgia has shown that a large planting hole – at least twice as wide as the root ball – encourages rapid root growth and plant establishment. Dig the planting hole only as deep as the root ball. If the hole is dug deeper, backfill it with soil as necessary and tamp it firmly to prevent settling. Make certain the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface. Some landscape professionals plant the top of the root ball 1 to 2 inches above grade if they know the soil is likely to settle slightly.

Figure 3. Dig the planting hole two times wider than the root ball. Make certain the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface.

Research has also shown that it is not necessary to add organic amendments, such as peat moss, compost or leaf mold, to the planting hole. Organic matter can act like a sponge in the planting hole, absorbing and holding too much moisture and causing the roots to stay too wet. When planting just one plant, it is best to backfill with the same soil removed from the hole. Be sure to break apart any clods and remove stones or other debris before refilling the hole.

Before planting balled-and-burlapped plants, cut any wire or cord from around the trunk and pull back the burlap from the top one-third of the root ball. This will allow newly formed feeder roots to grow into the new environment. When planting on poorly drained soils, remove the burlap completely. When planting trees or shrubs grown in fabric bags, remove the entire bag before planting.

To eliminate air pockets, water the planting site as the backfill soil is placed in the hole. Use your hand, not your foot, to gently firm the soil around the roots. Water thoroughly when finished and water again several hours later.

Figure 4. This balled-and-burlapped plant, with the cord cut from around the trunk and the burlap pulled back, is ready for planting.

Slow-release or liquid fertilizers can be added to the planting hole, but granular general-purpose fertilizers, such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10, can damage tender roots. Wait until the plants are established before applying a granular general-purpose fertilizer. (See section on caring for newly planted trees and shrubs.)

Finally, shape a small ring of soil, 2 to 3 inches high, along the perimeter of the planting hole. This forms a saucer on top of the soil, which directs water to the roots and prevents runoff.

Finally, uniformly apply a 3-inch layer of mulch over the soil surface. Mulches promote rapid rooting by maintaining uniform moisture levels and temperatures in the soil and by preventing weed competition. Landscape fabrics can be placed under the mulch to help prevent weeds and to conserve moisture.

Planting in Beds

A group of ornamental plants in one area of the landscape will grow more uniformly when planted in a well-prepared bed rather than in individual holes. Begin by deep tilling to a depth of 12 to 15 inches. Then incorporate about 1 pound (2 cups) of an eight to 10 percent nitrogen fertilizer, such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10, over every 100 square feet of bed area. Only incorporate lime into the bed if the soil test recommends it. After preparing the soil, follow the planting procedure recommended for planting in individual holes.

Figure 5. When planting a group of ornamental plants in the landscape, prepare a good bed by deep tilling to a depth of 12 to 15 inches.

Planting Annuals and Herbaceous Perennials

Figure 6. Plant annuals and perennials on raised beds to ensure good drainage and improved visibility.

To achieve the best color displays, annuals and herbaceous perennials must have good drainage, adequate nutrients and available water at all times. Begin by deep tilling the native soil to improve its structure and to ensure good drainage. Then, elevate the bed 6 to 12 inches by adding soil amendments. A raised bed not only ensures good drainage, but also improves the visibility of the color display.

The type and quantity of soil amendments used depends on the structure and texture of the existing soil, and whether amendments have been previously added to the site. A combination of composted organic matter, composted animal manure and large-particle sand, such as Lithonia granite, are frequently used to amend beds. If bagged organic amendments are used, apply one 40-pound bag per 100 square feet of bed area and incorporate it to a 6- to 8-inch depth. An ideal soil is moist, yet well drained.

Figure 7. Containers let you put splashes of color where you want it, regardless of soil type, and offer an alternative to flowerbeds. For best results, use quality potting soil and a well-drained container.

Slow-release fertilizers, such as Osmocote, are excellent for flowerbeds because they give the plants an even supply of nutrients throughout the growing season. Several formulas are available, although one with at least an eight- to nine-month release duration is recommended. Follow manufacturer recommendations for application rate.

After planting, apply about 3 inches of mulch on the soil surface to conserve moisture and prevent weeds. Fine-textured mulches, such as pine straw or pine bark mini-nuggets, stay seated better on the bed than coarse-textured mulches.

Finally, water thoroughly. A liquid fertilizer can be applied with the water at planting to provide some immediate nutrients.

Staking and Guying Tree

Figure 8. Trees with a trunk diameter greater than 1 inch and a height exceeding 4 feet usually require staking or guying.

Protective staking may be necessary for young trees, trees less than 4 feet tall, or trees planted in high foot-traffic areas, such as school grounds or shopping centers. Stakes also protect young tree trunks from lawn mowers and weed eaters, which can severely damage the bark. An area of mulch around the tree is an alternative to protective staking.

Trees with a trunk diameter greater than 1 inch and a height exceeding 4 feet need staking or guy wires to hold them in place until they are established. Staking or guying a tree keeps it from blowing over and uprooting during establishment. Trees with a trunk diameter up to 3 inches can be supported by two to four stakes, depending on the size of the canopy. After they are placed in the ground, the height of the stakes should equal the height of the lowest scaffold branches. Place the stakes along the perimeter of the planting hole, and pound them several inches into the ground to hold them firmly in place.

Secure the tree to the stakes with strong, 12-gauge wire. Attach the wire just above the lowest scaffold branches. Place the wire encircling the tree in a piece of old garden hose to prevent bark injury. Use three guy wires for trees larger than 4 inches in trunk diameter.

Give the tree some slack so it can move slightly with the breeze. Research indicates that a tree allowed some movement during establishment develops a larger root system and stronger trunk than one that is kept stationary.

Figure 9. A root ball staking system is an alternative to guy wires.

Remove stakes and guy wires four to six months after planting to prevent girdling and trunk injury. Remove stakes from fall-planted trees at the start of the spring growing season and from spring-planted trees at the end of the summer growing season.

An alternative staking method that is becoming more popular with arborists and landscape professionals involves placing four wooden stakes (2 x 2 inches wide and 4 feet long) opposite one another just outside the root ball, leaving 4 inches of each stake protruding from the soil. Screws are used to secure two additional 2 x 2-inch stakes to the vertical stakes (see Figure 9). This technique prevents the root ball from rocking during establishment, and does not harm the bark of the tree like guy wires sometimes do.

Trunk Wrapping

Trees often have their trunks wrapped to prevent injury during transport from the nursery to the garden center. When purchasing a tree with its trunk wrapped, remove the wrapping at planting time or shortly thereafter. It is not necessary to wrap the trunk of newly-planted trees.

Care of Newly Planted Ornamentals

Watering: Regular watering is critical during establishment of newly planted trees and shrubs. Keep the root system moist, but not too wet, for the first six to eight weeks after planting. The amount of water and frequency of application depend on the soil type and the type of plant. Trees and shrubs may require watering twice a week when there is no rain. Annuals and ground covers may need daily watering during establishment. Let soil moisture be your guide for watering frequency.

Fertilization: There are many slow-release fertilizers on the market that feed plants from six to 12 months with one application. Slow-release fertilizers generally cost more than general-purpose fertilizers, but they require fewer applications. Follow application guidelines on the bag or container.

If you use general-purpose fertilizers, use light applications for newly-planted ornamentals during the first growing season. For shrubs less than 12 inches tall, apply 1 level teaspoon of a 12 to 16 percent nitrogen source (12-4-8 or 16-4-8) or 1 level tablespoon of an eight to 10 percent nitrogen source (8-8-8 or 10-10-10) three times during the growing season (March through September). Broadcast the fertilizer along the perimeter of the planting hole.

Give trees 2 tablespoons of a 12 to 16 percent nitrogen source for each inch of trunk diameter three times during their first growing season. Broadcast fertilizers evenly over an area extending 6 inches from the trunk to 1 foot beyond the branch spread or canopy.

Newly planted ground covers benefit from a complete, balanced fertilizer, like 8-8-8 or 10-10-10. An application rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet is sufficient. When broadcasting fertilizers over the top of the foliage, be sure the foliage is dry, and water soon after application.

For information on the care of established ornamental plants, see Georgia Cooperative Extension Bulletin 1065, Care of Ornamental Plants in the Landscape.

Steps for Planting Success

  1. Survey the planting site. Modify the site, if necessary, to ensure a good growing environment. Select plants adapted to the site conditions.
  2. Purchase healthy, pest-free plants.
  3. When holding plants for later planting, keep them in the shade and water them regularly.
  4. Water plants thoroughly before planting to saturate the root ball with water.
  5. Thorough soil preparation is essential for healthy plant growth. When planting a group of plants, rototill the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches. When planting a single tree or shrub, dig the planting hole two to three times wider than the root ball.
  6. Place the plant in the hole so the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface.
  7. Remove any wire or cord from around the stem of balled-and-burlapped plants. Pull back or remove the burlap from the root ball if possible.
  8. Water thoroughly immediately after planting to settle the soil and to eliminate air pockets, which can dry out roots.
  9. Use stakes or guy wires to support trees or large shrubs on exposed, windy sites. Supporting devices are only temporary and should be removed a few weeks after transplanting.
  10. Apply 3 to 5 inches of mulch to the soil surface to conserve moisture and to prevent weeds.
  11. Water as necessary during the establishment period. Keep the soil uniformly moist — not too wet or too dry.
  12. Allow trees and shrubs time to become established before applying fertilizer.
Number of Plants Required Per 100 Square Feet At Various Spacings
Spacing (inches between plants) Number of Plants Needed
4 900
6 400
8 225
9 178
10 144
12 100
16 56
18 45
24 25
30 16
36 11
Approximate Number of Cubic Yards of Compost or Topsoil Required Per 1,000 Square Feet When Applied at Various Depths
Approximate Number
of Cubic Yards
Application Depth (inches)*
¼ ½ 1 2
1 2 3 5 6
* 1-inch of amendment applied to the soil surface and incorporated to a depth of 10 inches will provide approximately a 10 percent increase in organic matter content. A 10 percent to 30 percent increase in organic matter is ideal for annuals and perennials. There are 27 cubic feet in a cubic yard. Therefore, 9 bags (3 cubic feet in size) are equivalent to 1 cubic yard.

Status and Revision History
Published on Jul 01, 1999
Published on Feb 24, 2009
In Review on Jan 05, 2010
Published with Full Review on Feb 21, 2013
Published with Full Review on Feb 01, 2016

Should perennials be cut back in fall? It depends.

The email photo showed a mailbox on a wooden post surrounded by a nice planting of daylilies with the question, “Do you recommend cutting these back this fall?” I couldn’t resist replying that daylilies can be cut back, but the mailbox is best left standing.

Longtime gardeners sometimes forget that new gardeners might not know the nuances of some phrases. In gardening dialect, “cutting back” means reducing the size of a plant. We can cut back a leggy geranium to promote branching. An overgrown potentilla can be cut back in early spring to rejuvenate.

When we hear discussions of cutting back in fall, it’s usually about whether the tops of perennial plants should be pruned off. Another gardening term, “tops” aren’t just the tallest point, as in the top of a building, rather “cutting back the tops” of perennials means cutting all above-ground material to 1 or 2 inches above ground level.

Some perennial tops are best cut back in fall, while other types winter best with their tops left intact.

Cut these back in fall

• Peonies are susceptible to foliage diseases and blossom blights. After several frosts, prune tops back to near soil level and dispose in garbage. Good sanitation helps lessen peony diseases by removing leaves and stems where disease organisms survive winter. Other diseased perennials are likewise best pruned back.

• Hosta foliage becomes mushy and more difficult to remove if left over winter. About the time of the first frost, cut hosta foliage down to an inch or two above soil level.

• Iris foliage likewise becomes limp and difficult to handle by next spring, so it’s best removed around frost time. Iris can be divided August through September, and foliage is cut back at that time to a fan shape 2 to 3 inches high.

• Daylily leaves collapse during winter, so pruning them off after a few light fall frosts is less messy than waiting until spring. Old daylily foliage should be cut down every year or the accumulation of old leaves can choke out new growth.

Leave most intact

The tops of most perennials, with the exception of those listed, are best left intact during winter instead of cutting back. The stems and dried flowers add interest to the winter landscape and provide habitat for birds.

The most important reason for leaving perennial tops in place is the added winter protection they provide. The stems catch and hold snow, which is a good insulator, especially important during cold winters with little snow and in windswept areas. Tops reduce alternating freezing and thawing of soil, which injures perennials.

For types that are borderline in hardiness, intact tops hold protective mulch applied in late fall. Roses are generally best pruned back in spring. Fall pruning can be done if winter protection requires shortening stems.

If perennial tops are removed in fall, will they die? No. Although it’s recommended to leave them in place until spring, perennials will usually survive if cut back. But we occasionally have a “test” winter, and intact tops can mean the difference between survival and failure on some types. Some perennials, like mums, always winter best with tops left in place.

When leaving perennial tops intact during winter, cut them back in spring before new growth emerges from ground level.

Garden Calendar at a Glance: Your Guide on When to Plant Flowers, Shrubs, Vegetables, and More

Yasu + Junko

One of the most common question asked by gardeners is, “When is the best time to plant?” In general, the battle over ideal planting season is usually between spring and fall. After a long winter, springtime is a welcoming signal to get out those hibernating gardening supplies and wake up the ground. The weather is usually mild, there is plenty of clean up work to be done, and the nurseries are starting to fill up with color. Plus, spring is ideal for tidying up, filling in gaps and sowing seeds. Then there’s the other contender, and that’s fall. With shorter days and cooler air temperatures, this late season is also the smart choice because the soil is still cozy, which allows roots to grow until the ground potentially freezes, there’s less urgency to keep plants well watered, and plants are winding down their activeness. It’s important to remember that the window for fall planting generally ends six weeks before your area gets a hard frost and the ground freezes.

So, what’s really the best time to plant your favorite shrubs, flowers, trees, and grasses outdoors? It’s not so cut and dry. Some plants are only available at certain times of the year, and that alone determines their planting season. Certain roses and trees are sold as bare roots, which means they should only be planted in the dormant season of late autumn and winter. Spring-blooming bulbs, on the other hand, require a cold dormancy period to bloom. The overall weather should also be taken into account. If we experience an unpredictably wet spring, then working the soil can be unfruitful; if we experience very hot summers, it’s best to patiently wait until the fall to put your plants in the ground. With all that said, here are some general guidelines for when to plant different plant types so that your garden flourishes year round.


Container-Grown Trees and Shrubs

These variably-sized plants, from small shrubs to mature tree specimens, have the advantage of usually being available year round. That means they can be planted most times of the year. However, if you live where it snows then you’ll obviously want to wait until the ground is workable, and if you plant during the growing season (April to October) be aware that extra water will be needed for successful, healthy growth.

Container-Grown Perennials, Bamboo, Ferns, and Grasses

For best growth, the optimal time to plant these types of plants is in the fall because they will have some time to settle in and become established before the spring comes and their roots start to grow. However, if the plants you want are only available in the spring then plant at that time and be sure to water and mulch well.


When it comes to bulbs, the general rule of thumb is to plant them one or two seasons before they’ll make their flowering debut. Spring-flowering bulbs should be planted in autumn and early winter while summer-flowering bulbs should be planted in the spring. Autumn flowering crocus, on the other hand, should be planted in winter because they send up leaves in the spring and then flower in late summer.


The specific type of annual and your climate determines the ideal planting time. Annuals can be “cool season” or “warm season” thrivers based on their hardiness. Cool-season annuals, such as primulas, grow best when temperatures are mild and the soil is cool. That means they’re better-suited to spring and fall planting. Warm-season annuals, such as impatiens, grow in the warmer months and are cold sensitive. You’ll want to plant these flowers in the very late spring and summer.

Bare-Root Plants

These au natural plants offered with their roots exposed-usually fruit trees, roses, or perennials ordered online-should be planted right away so that their roots don’t dry out or they break dormancy before you can get them in the ground. These plants are usually available from November to March. It’s also important to note that bare-root plants are often more affordable than their potted, growing counterparts.


Turf grass is best known for being planted in the spring or the fall with September taking first prize because the ground temperature is pleasant for root growth and rain is usually on its way. The runner up is mid-spring when the ground is beginning to warm up.


Cool-season crops-such as spinach, broccoli and potatoes-grow best when temperatures range between 40 degrees and 75 degrees. In most zones, these cool-loving types can be planted two to four weeks before the last spring frost. Summer veggies, on the other hand, dislike frost so plant after your last frost date when nighttime temps remain above 50 degrees.

Garden calendar

Each season brings growth, change, and opportunities to care for plants and landscapes. Work in your garden to learn the cycles of nature, and feel the joy your efforts give rise to. Download a Garden Calendar.


  • Check young trees and shrubs for deer, rabbit, and rodent damage.
    Use fencing or protective collars to prevent injury.
  • On warm days, check perennials for heaving.
    Abrupt temperature changes can cause shallow-rooted plants to push out of the ground, exposing roots. Cover plants with a three- to four-inch layer of mulch, such as woodchips, straw, or evergreen branches. Keep road and sidewalk salt away from plants.
  • Keep road and sidewalk salt away from plants.
    Shovel snow away from plants.
  • Uncover plants weighted down with heavy snow.
    Gently brush off branches to prevent breakage. If frozen, let snow melt naturally.
  • Prune dead, diseased, crossing or rubbing branches anytime.
    Remove water sprouts and suckers now, too.
  • Prepare for spring planting.
    Evaluate last year’s garden and decide what changes need to be made.
    Draw garden plans on paper, including a wish list of plants you would like to add.
  • Continue to feed birds.
    Many plants offer winter berries, seeds, and pods for birds and other wildlife. Consider adding four-season plants to your landscape.
  • Clean and sharpen garden tools.
    Get ready for the upcoming growing season.


  • Don’t be fooled by warm, sunny days.
    It is still too early to remove mulches, screening, and other winter plant protections. Make sure they are still in place.
  • Monitor tree health.
    It is easier to notice dead branches, hollows, and cankers on trees. Cankers are signs that the tree has a disease.
  • Prune trees and shrubs.
    The ideal time to prune is in the dormant season, just prior to new growth.
    Wait to prune spring-flowering plants to avoid removing this year’s flower buds.
  • Wait to prune birch, elm, maple, and walnut trees until late fall.
    Although harmless, these trees “bleed” sap on sunny days when pruned during the winter.
  • Re-apply anti-desiccants to evergreens.
    If temperature is above freezing, a second application can be made.
  • Clean and sharpen garden tools.
    Get ready for the upcoming growing season.
  • Check the summer bulbs that are stored in a cool, dry place.
    Make sure they have not sprouted or dried out.
  • Order seeds and garden plants.
    Add new plants to your landscape.
  • Remember to feed the birds.
  • Create a sense of spring.
    Force branches of early spring flowering plants, such as forsythia, crabapple, and lilac. Place in a container of water in a cool place, away from direct sunlight. (Cuttings can take from two to three weeks to force.)


  • Wait until new growth is established before removing winter protection.
    Mulch protects plants from late spring freezes.
  • Begin general clean up.
    Rake the lawn to remove leaves, twigs, and debris.
  • Check for winter snow and salt damage.
    Prune dead tips and broken branches.
  • Cut ornamental grasses back to a few inches before new growth begins.
    Prevent soil compaction.
  • Avoid walking across saturated lawns and garden beds.
    Remove tree wraps applied last fall.
  • Before buds break, but when temperatures remain above 40°F, spray trees with dormant oil for overwintering insects and scale.
    Read label directions.
  • Prepare new planting beds if soil is dry.
    Work organic matter and compost into the soil before planting.
  • Fertilize trees and shrubs before new growth appears.
    A soil test will indicate a nutrient deficiency. Follow recommendations for fertilizer and pH adjustments.
  • Prune summer-flowering shrubs before new growth begins in spring.
    Abelia, butterfly bush, panicle hydrangea, beautyberry, and snowberry.


  • As temperature warms, remove winter protective covering from plants.
  • Replenish mulch around existing plants to a depth of 3 to 4 inches.
    Keep mulch away from trunks.
  • Fertilize trees and shrubs before new growth appears.
    A soil test will indicate a nutrient deficiency. Follow recommendations for fertilizer and pH adjustments.
  • Weather permitting, dig and move trees and shrubs prior to bud break.
  • Watch for insects and diseases that gave you problems last year.
    The sooner you detect damage, the easier it is to control.
  • Control apple scab on crabapple with a fungicide just as leaf buds begin to open.
    Spray should be repeated every 10 to 14 days until dry weather begins.
  • Avoid pruning oaks and elms between mid-April and October.
    Oak wilt and Dutch elm disease are spread by sap feeding insects carrying the disease from tree to tree.
  • Divide and move perennials every three years to prevent them from overcrowding.
  • Deadhead spring bulbs when they are finished flowering to direct energy back into bulbs.
    Discard tulips that only produced large leaves and no flowers.
  • Plant a tree in celebration of Arbor Day!


  • Begin planting trees, shrubs, and perennials now.
  • Divide and transplant perennials after they flower.
  • Plant annuals after all danger of frost has past.
    Average date is May 15.
  • Deadhead spring bulbs when they are done flowering to direct energy back into bulbs.
    Do not remove foliage, let it die back naturally.
  • Prune spring flowering trees and shrubs immediately after blooming.
    Crabapple, forsythia, lilac, viburnum.
  • Avoid pruning oaks and elms between mid-April and October.
  • Apply 3 to 4 inches of mulch around plants.
    This reduces weeds, conserves moisture, and controls temperature fluctuations in soil.
  • Stake tall and floppy perennials (peonies, delphiniums) as they grow.
  • Monitor all plants regularly for insect and disease problems.
  • Check evergreens, especially spruces, for spider mites; treat as new growth begins.
    Place a white sheet of paper under branch and tap lightly, looking for moving pin-head size spots.
  • Apply fungicide sprays to roses to control diseases such as black spot.


  • Water trees and shrubs deeply if natural rainfall is less than one inch per week.
    Water the soil and not the foliage to reduce leaf spot diseases.
  • Replenish mulch under trees and shrubs to conserve moisture, reduce weeds, and control temperature fluctuations in soil.
  • Prune late spring flowering shrubs and hedges now.
  • Avoid pruning oaks and elms between mid-April and October.
    Oak wilt and Dutch elm disease are spread by sap feeding insects carrying the disease from tree to tree.
  • Monitor all plants regularly for insect and disease problems.
    Early detection can make a difference!
  • Pull weeds before they go to seed.
  • Plant summer flowering bulbs and annuals.
  • Avoid deep cultivation around shallow rooted plants by hand pulling weeds when they are small.
  • Monitor container plants daily, especially those in clay pots, for watering needs.
  • Pinch garden mums and asters once a month for bushier growth.
    Stop pinching after July 15 so plants can set flower buds.
  • Remove faded blossoms from flowering annuals, perennials, and roses to encourage more blooms.


  • Plants should receive 1 to 2 inches of water every 7 to 10 days. Supplement water if we have not had a natural rainfall.
    Pay particular attention to drought sensitive plants such as maples, birch, hydrangea, and katsuratree.
  • Remove water sprouts and suckers from ornamental fruit trees.
  • Monitor all plants regularly for insect and disease problems.
  • Improper use of pesticides can be harmful to plants.
    Contact the Arboretum’s Plant Clinic, 630-719-2424, for proper identification, diagnosis, and control of plant problems.
  • Cool weather and excess moisture allow many fungal diseases to thrive.
    To prevent re-infection, remove infected leaves that have fallen to the ground.
  • Cut rose blooms back to the first set of five leaves after blooming to encourage stronger canes and more flowers.
  • Divide and replant iris. Discard any plants showing signs of insects or disease.
    Iris should be divided every 3 to 5 years.
  • Remove spent flowers and pinch back leggy foliage from annuals and perennials to promote bushier growth and more flowers.
  • Check container plants frequently for watering needs.


  • Monitor rainfall and keep plants well-watered during times of heat or drought, especially newly-planted trees and shrubs.
  • Continue to remove faded flowers on roses, annuals, and perennials.
    Pinch back leggy growth.
  • Don’t fertilize trees and shrubs now.
    New growth will not have time to harden off before winter.
  • Mid-August through mid-September is an ideal time to establish a new lawn or to seed in bare spots.
    For advice on establishing lawns, contact your county cooperative extension service. In DuPage County, the number is 630-955-1123.
  • Late summer or early autumn is the best time to divide perennials that bloom in the spring and summer.
  • Plant peonies from the end of the month through October.
  • Continue regular weeding and monitoring for insect and disease problems.
  • Start cuttings of herbs to grow on a sunny window sill during the winter.
  • Order spring flowering bulbs to plant this fall.
  • Treat lawn for grubs and Japanese beetle larvae in mid-August through September.


  • Plant new trees and shrubs early in the month so they have time to develop a good root system.
  • Divide perennials that bloom in the spring and summer.
    Now is a good time to divide peonies, phlox, daylilies, and iris.
  • Apply broadleaf weed killers to lawn.
    Follow label directions.
  • Cut flowers, such as strawflower, statice, and celosia, for drying.
    Hang upside down in a dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight.
  • Bring houseplants indoors before night temperatures drop below 55°F.
    Check for insects.
  • If the weather is dry, water plants deeply.
    Evergreens will especially need moisture in the soil for the winter months ahead.
  • Deadhead perennials.
    Remove and discard dead and diseased foliage to reduce infection next year.
  • Spring flowering bulbs can be planted from September until mid-November.
  • Leave the last rose blossoms of summer on plants to encourage dormancy.
  • Birds are beginning to migrate south.
    Restock bird feeders and put out fresh water to help them on their long journey.


  • Protect tender plants and annuals from light frosts by covering them with sheets, plastic, or newspaper on nights when frost is predicted.
    If soil tests indicate nutrient deficiency, fertilize trees and shrubs once leaf growth has stopped.
  • Plants will store fertilizer in roots until needed next spring. Wait until spring to fertilize evergreens.
    If weather is dry, water plants deeply, especially evergreens, before the ground freezes.
  • Continue to mow lawn as needed.
  • After first frost, lift dahlias, gladiolus, cannas, and begonias as their foliage starts to yellow.
  • Discard tops and store bulbs, corms, and rhizomes in dry peat moss or vermiculite.
  • Begin to tidy up flowerbeds by removing faded flower heads and cutting back dead stems from perennials.
    Remove annuals that have finished flowering.
  • Start a compost pile. Add plant debris, such as leaves, lawn clippings, and garden plants.
    Discard heavily diseased and infested foliage.
  • Empty large flower pot containers of plants and soil.
    Bring containers indoors to prevent breakage from alternating freeze and thaw cycles.


  • Fall is a great time to prepare for a new flower bed.
    Turn soil and amend if necessary. Freezing and thawing over winter makes soil more friable.
  • Rake fallen leaves and compost or shred with lawn mower and place around landscape plants.
    Discard diseased leaves, twigs, and fruits.
  • Plant hardy, spring-flowering bulbs outside until the ground freezes.
  • Start spring bulbs in containers for inside forcing to enjoy a little bit of spring in February.
  • Water landscape plants deeply, especially evergreens, before the ground freezes.
  • Cut back foliage of perennials to the ground after a few hard freezes.
    Leave unusual seed heads and ornamental grasses for winter interest.
  • Apply winter mulch to perennials and roses after a hard frost and as ground begins to freeze.
  • Drain and store garden hoses.
  • Store garden chemicals in an area above 40°F.
    Keep out of reach of children and animals.
  • Construct a cylinder of hardware cloth, chicken wire, or fencing around plants to protect against rabbit, mice, and deer that damage the bark and twigs of plants.


  • Begin light pruning on trees and shrubs by removing watersprouts and dead or crossing branches.
    Pruning trees and shrubs can be done more easily in winter without leaves on branches, but avoid pruning spring-flowering plants at this time.
  • Protect shallow-rooted perennials, such as mums, coral bells, shasta daisy, and crocus, from the freeze-thaw cycles of winter by covering plants with evergreen boughs from leftover holiday greens.
  • Apply winter mulch to base of roses once ground begins to freeze.
    Applying too early can prevent ground from freezing naturally.
  • Clean, sharpen, and repair all garden tools before storing.
  • Protect multi-stemmed evergreens, such as upright arborvitae, junipers, and yews, from heavy snow or ice damage during a winter storm by tying trunks together with old nylons or cotton twine.
    Be sure to remove in the spring!
  • Avoid using heavy quantities of deicing material along sidewalks and parking areas near landscape plants.
  • Gently shake or brush off heavy snow that accumulates on shrubs and small trees before it freezes.
    Do not attempt to remove ice.
  • Begin monitoring for animal damage when food sources become scarce, but don’t forget to feed the birds.

The most important step to planting a new flower bed is to visualize the future. While your bed might not look like much when it’s first planted, in a few months it will be much fuller, taller, and more colorful. The key is anticipating the heights, colors, textures, and mass of all the various plants.

The sample flower bed shown in this example consists of two rows of annuals and perennials in the front and a staggered row of taller plants (mainly shrubs) in the back. Even though everything is pretty much the same height when the bed is planted, eventually the background plants will greatly surpass everything else in size.

The strategy here is to create a backdrop of tall plants in the back of the flower bed, which creates a “canvas” for the rest of the arrangement. This is a technique known as “layering.” In the context of planting flower beds, “layering” means you put the tallest flower bed plants in the back, the shortest in the front row, and the remaining plants in between. A nicely layered flower bed provides maximum visual appeal when all the plants mature.

While it’s possible to start with a greater visual impact by selecting more mature shrubs, larger plants cost much more, and nurturing plants from a tender age (or from seed) is half the fun of flower gardening. The small shrubs in our sample bed are available at a very good price in most areas. In addition to the mature height, the plants were selected with the following considerations:

  • The flower bed is a very sunny location, calling for sun plants. Planning for a shady garden would obviously call for different choices.
  • It features some perennials, flowers including some perennials that bloom all summer. In general, anchoring a flower garden with perennials will help form the structure of the garden, and over time, they will fill in and gradually reduce the planting chores of filling in with annuals.
  • The plants offer interesting textures. Color is not the only consideration in planning a garden; texture and shape should also be considered. Though we haven’t used them here, small shrubs can be an excellent way to introduce textures into a planting bed
  • The color scheme is blue-purple-gold, which are complementary colors. Other complementary pairs are red and green, and yellow and violet. Other ways of planning color would be to use harmonious colors—those adjacent to one another on the color wheel—or a monochromatic scheme, in which all colors are subtle variations of the same color.

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