When garden centers start buttoning down for winter, you'll find some serious plant steals -- if you know what's worth buying and avoiding this time of year. Use the ideas on the following slides to find some of the year's best bargains.
They're one of the fall's best buys. Retailers slash prices because they can't keep them through the winter. But you can successfully plant them (along with almost any tree or shrub) up to six weeks before your first frost date (a local extension office or a Web search can provide the typical date for your area). Pictured: pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) and Japanese bloodgrass (Imperata cylindrica).
October is ideal for planting spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils. As that perfect time passes, garden centers slash bulb prices. If you're having a mild fall and your soil isn't yet frozen, grab some bargain bulbs. If you can dig into the soil at least 10 inches, you can plant bulbs, even with light snow on the ground. Make sure bargain bulbs are firm, free of mold or mildew and still have most of their papery skin.
Fall roses can be bargains if you live in the right part of the Midwest. It's fine to plant most roses in the fall in the southern Midwest (Zones 6 and warmer). But in the upper Midwest (Zones 5 and colder), it's a gamble to plant any roses except the most cold-hardy shrub varieties. Morden Blush shrub roses (left) are tough enough to survive a long winter up to Zone 2.
Large retailers often have the best discounts on trees and shrubs (plus tools, accessories, pond supplies and outdoor furniture) because the stores have limited space for garden items. Markdowns typically aren't so big at local nurseries with good facilities for covering and overwintering trees and shrubs.
If you see a deal on deciduous trees or shrubs missing some leaves, don't be scared off. That's usually a result of minor stress from a long stay in a container, or seasonal dropping of leaves. Avoid evergreens missing needles; they're probably struggling.
By fall, a lot of nursery stock looks pretty sad. Trust your instincts and avoid plants with leaf spots, disfigured leaves or obvious pest infestations (look under the leaves for colonies of insects, spider mites or worms).
No matter what you plant this fall, keep watering until winter hits. Even when summer cools off, plants can get dehydrated, which means they'll struggle to survive their first winter.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2009.)