my garden chores for november 2014

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelSO MANY LEAVES, so little time. That’s November’s urgent-feeling message—to somehow tuck in before the snows arrive. Composting expertise, the top skill any gardener can have, comes in especially handy during the November chores, so we don’t waste a single precious leaf. I’m still weeding (true!), mowing (until it stops growing, I’ll persist)—and also saving some seeds for use next year. The full to-do list for the month:

easy compost, extra-early soil prep

PILE UP the compost-to-be materials as you cut back faded plants, following Lee Reich’s easy plan (video how-to included). First extract finished compost and topdress your vegetable-garden beds with it, getting a jump on spring soil prep now.

LEAVES make great leaf mold when composted to add organic matter to beds. Maybe start a leaves-only compost pile, and use the proceeds as mulch next year? Running over dry leaves (and other dry non-woody material) with the mower to shred will reduce the area needed, and speed its breakdown.

GOT ANOTHER COMPOST QUESTION? I bet my compost FAQ page has the answer.

an ounce of prevention

CLEAN UP with a focus on prevention–of pests, weeds, and general chaos in the coming year. First hit things that showed signs of disease, weed or insect infestation, as author and longtime friend Ken Druse and I explained in this story and podcast. More tips:

  • Weed war: Minimize weed woes for next year. Some weeds are actually easier to thwart in late summer and fall, like these, and I’m still pulling what I see and deadheading seed-laden ones, at least. All my weed-control posts.
  • Pest control: Deer, voles, cabbage worms, squash bugs, cucumber beetles and other garden pests can be limited with tactics like this. (If you had viburnum leaf beetle, start your rounds of egg-case elimination now. The details.)
  • Clear turf or weeds from around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents and rabbits. Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round, sunk an inch or so into the soil, and standing 18 inches high. Use half-inch mesh or smaller.
  • And this: last call for soil samples. If you had areas where something didn’t fare well, gather a soil sample before the ground freezes and take or send it in for analysis to your local Cooperative Extension service.

take notes, make 2015 changes

DON’T RUSH AROUND around mindlessly, even though it feels like time is running out. While I teased the 2012 garden apart, I made my 2013 gardening resolutions, remember? Bring a pad and pen outside and record inspiration about what to do differently next year.

best practices for the birds

IT’S FEEDER SEASON, even for those of us who don’t (or can’t, because of marauding black bear, as is my issue) feed in frost-free months. Are you ready? Put out the welcome mat for the birds, like this.

UNFROZEN, AVAILABLE WATER 365 days a year is the Number 1 thing you can do in support of birds and other wildlife. I keep a hole in the surface of each of my water gardens, so overwintering frogs and salamanders and fish don’t suffocate, and so birds and animals can have a drink (or a splash). Water-garden wintertime prep.

seeds you can still save

YES, IT’S BEST TO PLAN what seeds you’ll save, starting at planting time in spring. But even this late, some garden harvest—including the last beans, or winter squash—may hold hidden treasure. Re-read Ken Greene of Hudson Valley Seed Library’s basic how-to on seed saving, to learn which ones are easy, and whether your various squash will have crossed or not, for instance. Or read about the Organic Seed Alliance’s tactics (including a link to a free, 30-page book-like pdf download loaded with both the botanical science and sensible tips, too).

safe keeping tender things

OBVIOUSLY, NON-HARDY THINGS must be stashed safely, and up North, the process of moving them into shelter began in September and October. I got advice for stashing tropicals from Dennis Schrader, a wholesale nurseryman who specializes in them, and from designer and nursery owner Kathy Tracey.  (Also in the archives: overwintering rosemary, and storing figs, and a general page of plant-stashing tips.)

STORING THE VEGETABLE HARVEST in the correct spots—no, a winter squash and an onion won’t be happy in the same temperature and humidity!–means longer-lasting enjoyment. Here’s how, in a chart and story.

are bulbs all planted?

MANY FLOWER BULBS can go in the ground surprisingly late, even up North, but what they can’t do is sit forgotten in your garage all winter. Get those bulbs in (and even purchase more on closeout sales, if you have time for extra digging). My bulb FAQ page.

Garlic is a bulb, too, and I’m hoping yours is already planted (do it today, if not—ideally about a month before frost is in the ground). How to grow garlic.

trees & shrubs

BET YOU WISH you’d added more woody plants that show off in fall. Plan to do so for next year–many can even be planted this late in autumn, if your nursery or a mail-order source still has stock. Or what about my top conifers for winter, and year-round, beauty?

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. This is especially important before winter arrives with its harsher weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing and unnecessary extra damage. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too, but don’t do aesthetic pruning now. A pruning roundup is here.

vegetables, fruit & herbs

DRY BEANS? I’m still working on getting some shelling beans to dry, like this.

IF NEXT YEAR’S GARDEN plans include a patch of strawberries or asparagus, do the tilling and soil preparation now so bare-root plants ordered over the winter can be planted extra early come spring. Mulch existing strawberry plants with a couple of inches of (guess what?) straw. Let asparagus foliage go golden and brown on its own; don’t cut back till later, or even earliest spring.

PARSLEY AND CHIVES can be potted up and brought indoors for offseason use. A few garlic cloves in a pot will yield a supply of chive-like (but spicier) garlic greens all winter for garnish. I prefer to harvest my green herbs and store them in these ways for winter use. Storing a rosemary?

flower garden

PROTECT VULNERABLE ROSES from winter damage in coldest zones by mounding up their crowns with a 6- to 12-inch layer of soil before the ground freezes. After all is frozen, add a layer of leaf mulch to further insulate.

CANNAS, DAHLIAS AND OTHER tender bulb-like things need careful digging for indoor storage. There are many methods, but the basics: Once frost blackens the foliage, cut back tops to 6 inches and dig carefully, then brush or wash off soil and let dry for two weeks or so to cure. Stash in a dry spot, like an unheated basement or crawl space, around 40-50 degrees, in boxes or pots filled with bark chips or peat moss, like this. With the cannas, I skip the medium, and just put them in garbage bags that I leave open in the cellar.

DON’T DEADHEAD FADED perennials, biennials and annuals if you want self-sowns, or make sure to shake pods around before removing plant carcasses. Nicotiana, poppies, larkspur, clary sage and many others fall into this leave-alone group. So do plants with showy or bird-friendly seedheads, like grasses and coneflowers.

PREPARE NEW beds for future planting by smothering grass or weeds with layers of recycled corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, then put mulch on top.


START A POT OF PAPERWHITES in potting soil or pebbles and water, and stagger forcing of another batch every couple of weeks for a winterlong display.

CONTINUE RESTING AMARYLLIS BULBS in a dry, dark place where they will have no water at all for a couple of months total. I put mine in a little-used closet, and they will come out late this month, since they went in around mid- to late September. Pot up new ones now.


KEEP MOWING TILL THE GRASS stops growing, and make the last cut a short one. Let clippings lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil, and mow over fallen leaves to shred if not too thick, or rake them off into the compost heap before snow comes.

TAKE THE MOWER IN for service after the final mowing, rather than in the spring rush, then store without gas in the tank. Run it dry. If it’s got too much fuel in it, add stabilizer from the hardware or auto supply store.

(All chores are based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.)

  1. Betsy Wells says:

    Late summer/early fall I cleaned my flower beds removing weeds etc, divided and moved plants. Then I put down a layer of homemade compost. (I am always amazed that all the plant material, kitchen scraps and coffee ground become this rich black compost. Mother nature really is amazing.) When the leave start falling, I gather them to be shredded and used as a layer of mulch over the compost. The cats love sleeping in the mountain of leaves waiting to be shredded.

  2. cynthia kling says:

    Margaret: As you may know, Chris Woods, formerly of Chanticleer, is doing a huge project on the Flora of North America for Oxford University Press which involves over 900 scientists and they have 6000 drawings so far. The most recent volume, #9, has just been published and I thought that you might want to interview him. Please email me back and let me know if you are interested.


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