my garden chores: october 2011

IWOULD LIKE TO BE ABLE TO SAY that I am already at work on my fall cleanup over here, but I have the rain to blame. The compost wants sifting and spreading—but it’s sodden. The grass wants mowing short—but it looks like a wet meadow. The first fallen leaves want raking—but they’re plastered to the ground. Of course, these soggy situations don’t mean I get a pass; I’ll just have fewer days to get it all done if and when the forces stop conspiring. My “as soon as it stops raining” list—also known as October 2011’s chores—follows:

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THE LATEST CHORES are in this week’s podcast with Robin Hood Radio, WHDD in Sharon, Connecticut–NPR’s smallest station (and right down the road apiece from me). Stream it now, while you read…or subscribe free via iTunes.

THE NEW SEASON IS HEATING UP, at least visually, even as temperatures trend downward. I’ll be interested to see what the fall foliage season amounts to after what seems like a record wet year. I wonder if it will come close to last year (which was dry). I will say the fruiting plants here have produced abundant crops (like hollies, viburnums, and crabapples).

TIME TO COOK UP the last bits from the vegetable garden into a batch of ‘Tomato Junk’ or soup, or local/homegrown apples into easy applesauce, checking on the kettles between rounds of raking and cutbacks outdoors. All my harvest-stashing tips are recapped here. With such delicious reminders of summer and fall in the freezer, and the right plants in the garden, there’s no “end” to fear. Some of us even feel happy about the coming riches: berries and other fruits, bark, a new season of birds.

PEAK PLANTING TIME for bulbs and for many woody things continues through month’s end or so; make that work include some focus on the addition of fall and winter plants to the landscape.

GARDEN CLEANUP, though, is the primary order of the day—and don’t forget: quickly stash your tender things as frost threatens or just after, depending on the plant, to carry them through the winter. Here we go:


CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from the area 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. 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).

SCOUTING FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE begins 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 of any I missed and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests.

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

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

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.


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 overwintering potatoes, and more.

DID YOU SOW COVER CROPS? Green manures help build soil tilth and fertility. There are varieties for each season and region; I use winter rye and medium red clover through mid-fall here.

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 through Thanksgiving, even in the north, and covered with fabric for super-early spring harvest; not the peas, of course.

AS VEGETABLE PLANTS (and annual flowers) fade, pull them to get a start on garden cleanup. Before composting the remains, cut them up a bit with a pruning shears or shred, to speed decomposition. I sometimes just run piles of dry things over with the mower (nothing too woody or you’ll wreck your blade, 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. I also freeze a lot of green herbs, from sage to parsley, this way.

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.

REPLANT YOUR BIGGEST CLOVES from your best heads of harvested garlic for best yield, or hurry and order a supply and plant now (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. Green growth will happen this fall, which is great; don’t panic. It’s a hardy thing. The whole story is here.


PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION to areas to cleanup around peonies, roses 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 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.

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 and many others fall into this leave-alone group; some plants must be left in place or seeds shaken around during cleanup to insure the next generation. Plants with showy or bird-friendly seedheads, like coneflowers, also get a stay of execution.

LAST CALL FOR BULB ORDERS, and plant as they arrive (lilies most urgently). 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 FIRST POT of paperwhites, 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.

IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED 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 their containers.


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, unless they are long and wet, in which case, rake and compost.


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. Running over dry leaves (and other dry non-woody material) with the mower to shred will reduce the area needed for such piles.

ORDER A SUPPLY of bulk mulch, which is cheaper than the packaged kind and also eliminates the waste of all those heavyweight plastic bags. Many local nurseries deliver. Top up mulch in all garden beds as they get cleaned up gradually in fall. I’ll recut the messiest of my bed edges, too, if there is time.

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

  1. Renay says:

    I SO wish we could take some of your moisture here in MN. However, I can do all the autumn jobs you’ve listed in my yard, in between watering/watering/watering.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Renay. I Am happy to send you some rain in trade for some help if it ever dries out here. :) Not sure I will ever “catch up”.

  2. Tricia says:

    Oh, I wish I as industrious as you. But just reading your list, I feel like I accomplished something and will be sure to get to — at least a few of these tasks. Thanks for the coaching.

  3. madcosta says:

    I am glad I read your comment on mulching in October. I have been wondering about that. Once everything gets dried, I plan on edging AGAIN and then placing mulch down. I agree that everything looks better with a clean edge and mulch. My problem is that I never mulch when I weed, which is a big, big mistake. I seem never to have time except in my dreams. I used the half moon tool but have lately found that a tool, which I think is for breaking ice, works well also. Of course, I am sure you would suggest cleaning all flower beds (daylilies, hostas) before mulching? I have never cleaned my beds thinking that they keep the underlings warm during the winter. I am sure they keep the critters warm also. Thanks for your blog, I really do enjoy reading it and have passed it on to other garden lovers.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Madcosta. Sorry to delay in seeing your comment — it got lost in the spam somehow temporarily. Yes, a thorough cleanup first — except with things that have seedpods that I like to look at or the birdsmight find good to eat (like ornamental grasses, e.g.). You are correct: the fallen foliage of collapsed perennials makes great hiding for animals, and can be disastrous come spring (so many tunnels and holes!). Also, it promotes the overwintering of some fungal organisms, or any diseases that might have been in the garden, etc. So I clean up pretty thoroughly except as I say where there is “winter interest” either visually or for the birds to nibble.

  4. Jared says:

    Garden chores! Garden chores! Finally, perhaps a weekend of sun to bustle about in!

    Question for you: How late can I plant fall-blooming crocus. The Brent and Becky’s bulb site says they must be planted in early fall. What’s your experience? I’m in Zone 4/5, Washington County, NY.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Jared. The bulb companies won’t ship them when it’s too late because they bloom (though not in the ground) and exhaust themselves I believe — and I suspect they’d then get lots of complaints if they sent out these spent-looking things with withered flowers on them, no? I think that’s the issue — and doubt you can even get them now. I think everyone will say “sold out” at this point.

  5. Sarah says:

    I got a message from one of my catalogs a couple days ago, telling me that they were sold out of two of the varieties of garlic I wanted. Hopefully, my hyacinths will still be in on the 25th when I have the money to actually get them.

  6. Judith McKnight says:

    I got my garlic planted this week. Next project is to get my tulip bulbs in the ground. Starting to get cold now. Today I am going to mow up the leaves and get ready to put the crushed leaves back in the flower beds. When everything is out of the garden then it is time for composted cow manure for next spring. Anything else you can think of that I need to do?

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