my garden chores: november 2011

Margaret's garden clogs and trowel

LOOKING OUT THE WINDOW, I feel silly posting the November chores—well, except for “shovel snow,” maybe, or “pick up branches if the snow melts” and “prune off hangers in damaged shrubs and trees.” But what say we pretend, since most of you are not in a similar winter wonderland—yet? The usual directive for November: Get the place cleaned up before really harsh weather says “stop.” I just hope I haven’t missed my opportunity with certain chores. When (if?) conditions allow, I’ll focus on a few key items first—perhaps you have your own your November “musts”?

I’LL TARGET EXTRA-THOROUGH CLEANUP first to areas where rodents (especially mice and meadow voles) and moles might do winter damage, like in perennial beds, not leaving any heavy buildup of fallen plants and wet leaves in place. I set out mousetraps under boxes, buckets or cans where I see any activity, to rid them from my beds and borders. Despite Jack the Demon Cat’s help with population control, it has been a banner year for all of the above.

The garlic is in, thankfully—got it planted just in the nick, apparently; the spinach (true!) will be the last thing I sow, selecting a variety like ‘Tyee’ that can stand the cold. And that’s not all I try to get done this month:

LAST CALL FOR SOIL SAMPLES: If you had areas where something didn’t fare well—an unproductive vegetable or fruit crop, an unwillingness of some shrub to flower for no apparent reason—quickly gather a soil sample before the ground freezes and take it in for analysis to your local Cooperative Extension service. Some amendments can be spread or tilled in before heavy frost to start to mellow over the coming months.


PRIME TRANSPLANTING TIME for deciduous trees and shrubs continues into this month, sometimes longer if weather permits and the ground show no signs of freezing. Make that work include some focus on the addition of fall and winter plants to the landscape–including these golden goodies.

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

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

BE EXTRA-VIGILANT cleaning up under fruit trees, as fallen fruit and foliage allowed to overwinter invites added troubles next season. Technically mummies (fruit still hanging) should be removed, too, but I like to leave it for the birds.

KEEP WATERING woody plants until frost is in the ground if conditions are dry, so that they enter dormancy in a well-hydrated state. (No worry about dry soil in the Northeast, that I can tell you with certainty.)  Evergreens (needled ones and broadleaf types like rhododendron, too) are particularly vulnerable to desiccation and winterburn otherwise.

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. A pruning roundup is here.


MULCH STRAWBERRY PLANTS with a couple of inches of (guess what?) straw.

IF NEXT YEAR’S GARDEN plans include a patch of strawberries or asparagus, do the tilling and soil preparation now so the bare-root plants ordered over the winter can be planted extra early come spring.

PREPARE A SEEDBED NOW for peas and spinach for next spring, to get a headstart on such early crops. Spinach can even be sown this month, for super-early spring harvest; not the peas, of course.

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 sow seeds of bush basil in a pot, too. I rely on frozen pesto cubes instead, and you can store many green herbs over the winter like this.

HURRY, HURRY if you didn’t get your garlic in. Ideally it would be in about a month before frost is in the ground. Prepare a sunny spot, and plant each clove 1-2 inches deep and 6 inches apart in the row, with about 12 inches between rows.


PROTECT ROSES FROM WINTER damage in cold 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.

PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION to areas around peonies, roses, irises and other flowers that are prone to fungal diseases. Cut down iris foliage and rake well under roses.

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 the 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. Details, here, on making more tender things at home.

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.

LAST CALL FOR BULB ORDERS, though I swear you can plant them even with a pick-axe and they come up anyhow. Remember our “early, middle, late” mantra when ordering. And think 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 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 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.


START A LEAVES-ONLY PILE alongside your other heap as a future source of soil-improving leaf mold, or when partly rotted for use as mulch. To save space and speed decomposition, run it over with the mower to pre-shred.

IF IT ALL SEEMS TOO HECTIC, remember: Seed catalogs in the easy chair are just ahead, and a time of quiet and reflection—which may be welcome after such a year of weather—is almost here, too. Position it to point out the window, where there are still riches: berries, or perhaps bark, and new birds. Did you join Project Feederwatch yet? Recording of data runs fall through April. Other ways to help the birds are here.

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


  1. Heather says:

    I just put 160 bulbs in the backyard last night! It was getting too dark to fast to really enjoy the task but it will be great next spring. Margaret, do you put out bird feeders in the winter? If so, when do they come out?

  2. Mary Murphy says:

    Hi Margaret: Here in Westchester County, NY (Zone 6) we got whomped with around 8 inches of heavy, wet snow, too. It started snowing around Noon on Saturday – hours eariler than predicted – and accumulated extremely fast, wreaking havoc in the garden. My husband went out a few times during the storm to brush/bat the snow off several mature shrubs that were starting to touch the ground. Even with all that effort, by the next morning, everything was weighed down again with several inches of heavy snow. So, we both went through the garden clearing off as much as we could and everything seemed to bounce back pretty well (although a fallen branch crushed one of my beloved Viburnums, but I will replace it next Spring). I’m so glad that I cleared out our veggie garden a few weeks ago and was able to add amendments to the soil in the raised beds so that they would be all ready for planting in Spring. I also planted out 140 Tulips in the raised beds to enjoy as a Spring Display and for bouquets. We mulched the beds with bags of mowed leaves – so they were all safely tucked in before this awful October snowstorm. I hope that when your snow melts, you will find that most everything came through OK. Let’s all pray for no more snow until January!

  3. keith says:

    Hi Margaret-
    planted my garlic a couple of weeks ago in CT before the snow fell and now it is sprouting through the snow (!). Never did this before. Do I need to be concerned? Or will it just stage a hasty retreat when the real cold sets in. Thanks for any thoughts.

  4. Sarah says:

    I live in the Canadian arctic and for the past few years I’ve had amaryllis bulbs and their beautiful flowers to help me get through the cold month of December and it’s awful days of almost 24 hour darkness. This year, I purchased tulips, anemones, daffodils and narcissi to grow indoors so that this spring when its minus 40 out, I’ll have a little bit of color and green to get me through until I can garden again in May. Do you have any tips on growing these bulbs indoors? I was going to plant them in pots and put them in my storage room until January when the sun starts to show itself again. Any tips would be much appreciated!!

  5. Mikaela D. says:

    Whew! Hope y’all get power back soon! I know some people are still without. Good to know I still have some time to get the garlic and the bulbs in. And I hope to have the flower beds prepped this weekend.

    I saw my first little very dark brown fuzzy catepillar two weeks ago ~ usually an old lore sign of an early or heavy winter. Brrrrrr!

  6. i
    Hi Margaret,

    I must say your timing couldn’t be worse. I have eight acres on which I have never planted so much as a bulb, as I prefer to let them die at someone else’s hand. The gardening books I read always made the pursuit seem way too daunting. Now you come along and explain it all in terms even I can understand — just months after extensive hand surgery that has killed the gardening career i would happily have started.

    Isn’t is curious that, every other year, we have a blanket of snow on the leaves, and this year we have a blanket of leaves on the snow? The result looks like granola on whipped cream.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Bette. So sorry about your hand surgery — ouch — but perhaps in time we can lure you into the garden again. I love your image of granola on whipped cream! Thank you, and see you soon again.

      Welcome, Mikaela. Yes, no worry on the bulbs (other than lilies, which like an earlier planting, usually). I have been seeing woolly bear caterpillars too. :)

      Hi, Sarah. Rather than try to explain forcing here maybe start with these articles from Purdue University (an easy to follow pdf) the University of Rhode Island . The tricky part: Things like tulips, crocus, narcissus etc. need a chilling period (a sort of fake winter) so you have to put the pots in a cold frame or under straw bales or somewhere that they can get chilled but not frozen solid and buried for the whole winter. Some people use a spare refrigerator, etc. Anyway, have a read.

      Hope to see you all again soon.

  7. Anna says:

    Hi Margaret,

    An injured tree question. Is it proper to use that sealer they sell for trees that have had their branches torn off? I hear conflicting things. Cut broken branches off as close to the tree and leave them alone, or apply the sealer? Or should I call in professionals? We have a number of trees, silver maple and chestnut that have lost limbs. Hate to neglect them now and lose them later.

    Thank you.


  8. Jlynn says:

    I live in an apartment building and am fortunate to be able to have a small flowerbed along the front of the building. I always clean it up in the fall to make sure that other people’s trash doesn’t get nestled in among my plants. I use a black lawn and leaf bag full of leaves to cover my day lily. I leave the leaves in the bag and put the whole thing on the lilly after the first hard freeze. In the spring I take the bag off and throw it all away.

    Does anyone else use this method for covering plants? What are your thoughts?

    1. Margaret says:

      Sounds like it works for you, JLynn (and hello!). The daylily (assuming you mean Hemerocallis, the popular plant we refer to as daylilies) is plenty hardy without any protection down to Zone 3ish, I think; was there a problem overwintering things in that spot that led you to add the extra insulation? Many people use it on things that are not quite hardy where they live — leaves in a bag or an upside-down pot or a basket, etc.

  9. Sarah says:

    Thanks Margaret for the reading material! I think I will put the pots in my crawl space for a few months. It’s cool and dark down there. Like most gardening I guess it will be a test to see what works and what doesn’t!
    Hope that you’re surviving all the snow at your end of the world. We just got 10 inches yesterday and although I do love seeing the winter wonderland out there, I did not enjoy shoveling my car out this morning.
    I see Heather asked about bird feeders in the winter time. One of the things I do for the birds in my area is make suet. I mix lard and bird seed into a ball and put it out for them so that they get a little extra fat on their bones to help them through the winter.

  10. Thanks for the reminder about the paper whites…I know I have some in my freezer from last year, somewhere! And also thanks for the tips about the heavy snow on trees and shrubs. I think the most heart breaking story from Boulder, CO from the big October snowfall, was of a young peach tree that was planted several years ago during my friend’s wedding celebration, where the guests (from all over the world) each brought a handful of soil to add to the planting. This poor tree suffered multiple serious breaks. A local arborist did the best he could to patch it up, only time will tell if it pulls through.

    1. Margaret says:

      You are welcome, Karina, and nice to “meet” you. I have many things here that are in the intensive care unit like that peach. So disheartening! I have my fingers crossed for both of us and our botanical patients.

  11. Pat says:

    Hello Margaret,
    I hope this isn’t an impossible question, but can you keep hanging fuchsia plants alive during the winter if you bring them inside. I live in northern Illinois right on the Wisconsin border and we’re at 37 degrees right now with heavy winds. Could drop to 28 tonight. I thought my fuchsias would be gone by now, but they’re absolutely beautiful and in full bloom. This is a first for me. I am going to bring them in tonight. I’ve been on-line but there are differing opinions. I would really value yours.
    Thank you!

  12. Iris says:

    Hi! Enjoy your beautiful & informative blog so much! Do you have a recommendation for me? I am looking for an introductory gardening book for my adult daughter, who now has the gardening bug passed down through generations of our family. Need one with illustrations & care/maintenance info. for N. GA plants, flowers, shrubs, etc. I know I can trust your choice – thanks!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Iris. I am still recommending some oldies but goodies — and you will have to find a used copy online. “Crockett’s Victory Garden” by James Underwood Crockett is where I’d start, and among recent books look for Barbara Damrosch’s “The Garden Primer” maybe?

  13. Nancy Gladieux says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Is is to late to put anything down on my lawn? It’s has been thatched. I had lots of weeds and treated them in the fall. The thatching didn’t help pull the dead weeds out. I would like to put fertilizer or seed down but is it to late. I live in Michigan, the nights are pretty cold and we have had frost. Should I wait and treat in the spring or are their products that I can put down now?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Nancy. Here in the Northeast we do fall lawn stuff in September-ish. I don’t use any chemical fertilizers or pre-emergent herbicides as they are too dangerous for us, the environment, pets, kids… But I love the information on organic lawncare at SafeLawns dot org (Paul Tukey is the person behind it). Start here.

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