my garden chores for october 2014

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelWHERE TO BEGIN with the massive job called fall cleanup? Top on our chores list this month: a 7-point program to help us all focus—along with some critical note-taking on the 2014 garden, as we’re teasing it apart.

fall cleanup: the short version

  1. Leave especially ornamental or wildlife-friendly plants standing. Don’t act as if you’re vacuuming the living room; clean up beds tactically for maximum enjoyment by you and the birds.
  2. Remove sickly things first. Destroy the debris to minimize next year’s issues with squash bugs, cabbage worms, voles, and other pests and diseases. Like this.
  3. Stabilize woody plants: Identify any vulnerable limbs, removing broken or dead branches now to make sure winter weather doesn’t worsen things. Pruning 101.
  4. Gather leaves, and even start a leaves-only compost pile. I run them over with the mower to save space. Once they get crumbly, they make great mulch, or can be turned into beds to add organic matter.
  5. Late-season lawncare: Do your heavy raking now—not in spring—and overseed if there’s still time. Here’s why that’s smart. Topdress with a half- or three-quarter-inch layer of compost onto thin or trampled areas.
  6. Protect or store weather-vulnerable pots: At a minimum, move pots under cover, where they will at least dry off (to minimize heave/thaw effects of weather). More tricks on weather-proofing and overwintering pots are in this story, with my friend Ken Druse.
  7. Weed! Besides cleaning up around diseased plants, this is a giant “must.” Even if you can’t weed, exactly, deadhead your weeds now and discard the seeds somewhere they cannot resprout. Fewer seeds now, fewer weeds next year. My archive of weed stories (bet you’ll find your worst offenders in there).

how’d you do? evaluate the garden

IN EARLY FALL, I try to do an informal survey of the garden—noting what worked and didn’t, and making a plan for possible changes. While I tease the garden apart this month, I’m making my next-year garden resolutions—remember my 2013 resolution list, made around this time? So helpful.

overwintering tender plants

BEAT THE FROST: I got some great advice for stashing tropicals from Dennis Schrader, a wholesale nurseryman who specializes in them.  (Also in the archives: overwintering rosemary, and storing figs, and a general page of plant-stashing tips.)

trees & shrubs

FALL IS A GREAT TIME for planting woody things. But don’t dig an extra-large hole, or amend the backfill with lots of compost or peat moss. Here’s why that’s bad for transplants—plus how to prune their roots before planting.

CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents. Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round.

BE EXTRA-VIGILANT cleaning up under fruit trees, as fallen fruit and foliage allowed to overwinter invites troubles next season. So will mummies (shriveled fruit hanging on the trees). Best to pick and remove, though I confess to leaving mine hanging for the birds, who adore it.

SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE later this month, when leaves fall and egg cases are easier to see. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood, before April-ish, to reduce larvae and beetle issues next year. The bump-like cases are usually on the underside of youngest twigs. I also watch in May for larvae hatch of any I missed and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests.

BE SURE TO WATER trees now through hard frost if conditions are dry, so that they enter dormancy well-hydrated. Evergreens (needled ones and broadleaf types like rhododendron, too) are particularly vulnerable to desiccation and winterburn.

DON’T PANIC IF EVERGREENS show some browning or yellowing of needles this month and next. The oldest, innermost needles typically shed after a few years.

BESIDES REMOVING dead, damaged, diseased wood, ditto with suckers and water sprouts anytime. No hard pruning now, though; no fertilizer this late, either.

vegetables, fruit & herbs

PRESERVING the edible garden here runs through the last apple and green tomato I  squeeze into my pantry or freezer in the form of something delicious and durable. Such as applesauce, or apple butter, easy vegetable and other soups, or jam-like tomatillo salsa, or skins-on easy tomato sauce to freeze. Cookbook author Alana Chernila taught me to roast herbed tomatoes like this, then freeze them. Delicious. I freeze lots of herbs, too, in various forms.

TOMATOES NOT RIPE? How to coax them to redness, maybe (or ways to use them green!).

I LEAVE MY POTATOES in the ground as long as I can, but any day now they really want a proper storage place (humidity is the key). All about storing dug potatoes. Plus: How to store all your vegetables so they last.

REPLANT THE BIGGEST CLOVES from your best heads of harvested garlic, or hurry and order a supply and plant this month (about a month before frost is in the ground). How to plant garlic: Prepare a sunny spot, and plant each clove 2 or so inches deep and 6 inches apart in the row, with about 12 inches between rows. I mulch my garlic bed. Green growth may appear this fall; that’s normal.

DID YOU SOW COVER CROPS? Green manures help build soil tilth and fertility. There are varieties for each season and region.

PREPARE A SEEDBED NOW for peas and spinach for next spring, to get a headstart on such early crops. Spinach can even be sown now, even in the north, and covered with a Reemay fabric “blanket” for super-early spring harvest.

IF NEXT YEAR’S GARDEN plans include a patch of strawberries or asparagus or cane fruits like raspberries, do the tilling and soil preparation now so the bare-root plants ordered over the winter can be planted extra early come 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. Determined types with really sunny windowsills can theoretically sow seeds of bush basil in a pot, too, but I have no luck with that; I rely on frozen herb concoctions.

flower garden

PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION to areas to cleanup around peonies, roses, bearded iris and other flowers that are prone to fungal diseases; don’t leave any debris in place.

CANNAS, DAHLIAS AND OTHER tender bulb-like things including elephant ears need to be dug carefully for indoor storage. There are many methods, but the basics: Once frost blackens foliage, cut back the 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 unheated basement or crawl space around 40-50 degrees, in boxes or pots filled with bark chips or peat moss.

DON’T COMPLETELY DEADHEAD FADED perennials, biennials and annuals if you want to collect seed (non-hybrids only) or wish to let them self-sow for next year’s show. Nicotiana, poppies, larkspur, clary sage, angelica and many others fall into this leave-alone group.

LAST CALL FOR BULB ORDERS, and plant as they arrive (lilies most urgently—I love the martagon types). How I think when I’m ordering flower bulbs (seven tips). And I especially think about drifts, not onesies and threesies.

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 FIRST POT of paperwhites (or a cocktail shaker full, tee hee), and stagger forcing more every couple of weeks for a continuing winterlong indoor display.

REST AMARYLLIS BULBS by putting them in a dry, dark place where they will have no water at all for a couple of months. In September, I put mine in a little-used closet; do it now if you haven’t. An unusual way to grow these familiar bulbs.

IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED urgent repotting, do it before they come inside (less messy than in the house!). Ideally, I do this in spring just as they go out, but if someone’s in need, do now. Don’t step up more than an inch (on small pots) or a couple (on large ones). Most plants don’t like to swim in containers.

compost heap & mulch

TOP UP MULCH in garden beds as they get cleaned up gradually. I order bulk mulch, which eliminates the waste of all those heavyweight plastic bags. Many local nurseries deliver. What good mulch is made of. I’ll recut the messiest of my bed edges, too, if there is time, to reduce weed creep.

(Note on using this list: All chores are based on my Zone 5B Berkkshires/MA-Hudson Valley/NY location; adjust accordingly.)

  1. elizabeth van dyk says:

    Garlic will be my next passion ! Leeks have and continue to delight me when their silly heads bounce in the autumn breezes- Jim Henson would have loved these and might have given them a voice.
    But the promise of garlic growing and filling the soil with that magnificent flavor…mind blowing!

    Thank you for your newsletter- filled with encouragement and wonderful non-threatening information.

    Bless you

  2. Joan Thomas says:

    Thanks, informative as always. My neighbor wants me to help her fertilize her Colorado Spruce this month because the package of spikes said to apply twice a year. Should I try to dissuade her? We are north of Chicago, Illinois.

  3. Michelle D says:

    Terrific website/blog. Regarding deadheading: I noticed a group of smaller birds keep returning to pluck away at our finished sunflowers; a smaller heritage variety. I thought our chickens would enjoy them but they completely ignored the heads I placed at easy pecking height along the fencing. I love the way the small birds flutter away in a big swoop when I enter the veggie garden. Thanks for your wonderful writing.

    1. margaret says:

      The chickadees and goldfinch here are crazy about the smaller sunflowers I have still standing here, too, Michelle. Love watching them feasting.

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