my garden chores: september 2011

Margaret's garden clogs and trowel
TYPICALLY THE SEPTEMBER CHORES would be following the hottest, driest part of my garden year here—the summer—and I’d harp on about making sure to water your trees and shrubs right through when the ground freezes. I think with more than 7.5 inches of rain falling here on Saturday-into-Sunday alone, I might skip that step, and get on to the rest of the month’s chores, starting tomorrow with—yes!—weeding instead.

THE FALL IS COMING, the fall is coming. Nothing to worry about, Chicken Little, if the garden’s been planned for enjoyment in all seasons…well, unless you slack off now and let those foxy weeds go to seed and gobble up the whole place. No, no definitive “end” to the season lies ahead, and some of us even feel happy about the coming of slightly quieter, more contemplative times where less obvious garden stars can shine.

PEAK PLANTING AND DIVIDING time is upon us; make that work include some focus on the addition of fall and winter plants to the landscape.

Maybe something gold?

Maybe something full of fruit, like this or this or this?

AS YOU BEGIN to wind down and clean up, take notes of what worked and didn’t. Mark areas that would have been easier to maintain with a workhorse groundcover in place, for instance, or areas where more bulbs might fit. Last year at this time I made a walkabout and identified various shrubs whose days were numbered; just not enough bang for the buck (well, for the space they take up), or simply too big to fit where they grew anymore. Down and out they came early this spring.


IF YOU’RE ON THE DRY SIDE, unlike me, be sure to water trees and shrubs now through hard frost, 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 if not well watered before the cold and winds set in.

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

HOPEFULLY YOU STOPPED FEEDING woody plants in July or August. Promoting more soft growth after July-ish isn’t good; time for them to start moving toward the hardening-off phase of their cycle. No more eats till earliest spring.

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. Ditto with suckers and water sprouts. No hard pruning now, though; too late to risk encouraging regrowth.


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. That said, my earliest crop of lettuce each spring comes from a ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ plant I just let flower and self-sow in a corner of the garden year after year. Untidy to some eyes, but it always makes me smile.

MY FALL VEGETABLE GARDEN PLANS were covered in this archive story and podcast.

HAVE YOU HAD TOMATO TROUBLES? There is a range of possible problems to be sure. It’s always something with tomatoes, but who could garden without them? If your issue was cucumbers, start here.

LOOKING FOR RECIPE IDEAS for all that produce, including these for cucumbers and zucchinis galore? All my recipes are here.

AS AREAS COME EMPTY from harvest, build vegetable-garden soil by sowing cover crops. These “green manures” will be turned under to improve soil tilth and fertility. Remember not to sow in areas reserved for fall-planted crops like garlic!

PARSLEY AND CHIVES can be potted up and brought indoors for offseason use, or freeze some (or give the plants some extra protection and keep harvesting from the garden). A few garlic cloves in a pot will yield a supply of chive-like (but spicier) garlic greens all winter for garnish.

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.

IF YOU HARVESTED YOUR own garlic, save the best heads with the biggest cloves for replanting later this month or next (about a month before frost is in the ground). Otherwise, order bulbs now. 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.


DON’T DEADHEAD FADED perennials, biennials and annuals if you want to collect seed (non-hybrids only) or plan to let some self-sow. Nicotiana, annual poppies, larkspur, clary sage and many others fall into this leave-alone group. So do plants with showy or bird-friendly seedheads, like coneflowers, some sedums, clematis and grasses.

DAYLILIES can be dug and divided as they complete their bloom cycle, right into fall, if needed.

PEONIES are best divided and transplanted in late August through September, if they need it. Remember with these fussy guys that “eyes” must not be buried more than an inch or two beneath the soil surface. Want more peonies? Now’s the time to order.

MANY POPULAR ANNUALS can be overwintered as young plants if you take and root cuttings now rather than try to nurse along leggy older specimens. Geraniums, coleus, wax begonias, even impatiens (to name just a few common ones), if grown in good light indoors and kept pinched and bushy, will yield another generation of cuttings for next spring’s transplants. Probably best to expend this effort and space on things you really treasure—an unusual form of something, not the garden variety.

IF TUBEROUS BEGONIAS like ‘Bonfire’ or ‘Bellfire’ are starting to go slack, let them dry off and rest early, or they will rot. Take your cue from the plants!

ORDER BULBS promptly, and plant as they arrive (lilies most urgently). Remember our “early, middle, late” mantra when ordering, for a prolonged show. Many bulb questions answered here.

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

RE-EDGE BEDS to make a clean line and define them. Don’t let them get overrun just because summer’s wound down. A clean edge makes a big difference.


REST AMARYLLIS BULBS by putting them in a dry, dark place where they will have no water at all for a couple of months. I put mine in a little-used closet.

IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED repotting, do it before they come inside later this month (less messy than in the house!). 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.


MID-AUGUST TO MID-SEPTEMBER is prime lawn-renovation and planting time in the North. Have you reseeded yet? Paul Tukey at SafeLawns [dot] org shared some overseeding how-to’s recently.

DON’T BAG OR RAKE clippings; let them lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil, right through the last mowing in late autumn.


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.

DON’T LET THE HEAP dry out completely, or it will not “cook.” Turning it to aerate will also hasten decomposition, but things will rot eventually even if not turned. I extract more finished material and screen it each fall, to work into the gardens (and make more room for incoming fresh debris).

On using this list in your garden: The monthly A Way to Garden chores are based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.

  1. Stacey says:

    I spent the morning oohing and ahhing over bulbs. I was captivated by Allium cowanii. They are pure white and look so pretty. Do you know anything about this variety?

  2. Florence says:

    Some of my crepe myrtles took a beating during Irene. A few are still touching their toes. I have avoided pruning back to the main stems as I don’t like that scalped look but wonder if I should do this in the spring. I’ve followed the advice “Prune up, not down. Prune to see through, not over.” Any thoughts? PS: they were covered with blooms and seed pods, most are at least 8 feet tall.

  3. Lindsay says:

    Such awesome and all inclusive advise. I am a total slacker when it comes to preventing the weeds going to seed. Not much longer till the leaves turn orange! I admit I cannot wait to see the fall foliage!!

    1. Margaret says:

      Glad to help, Lindsay. I was eyeing some crabgrass yesterday, all full of ripening seed, and thinking: no way that’s staying there to pop open and spread next year’s crabgrass population! So I do recommend removing the worst offenders before they behave badly. :)

  4. Calico says:

    I love your website. There’s so much here I want to read I could spend hours just looking it over. Thank you so much for sharing. Gardening keeps me somewhat sane and I don’t know what I would do without always wanting something new. I’ve been at it a long time and still learn from your generous advice. Bless you dear.

  5. Sarah says:

    I inherited the listing gene from my mother, but until I read your blog, I would have never thought about posting them. Thanks for the great idea! This is my chores list: http://rainydaygardening.com/?p=21 .

    I’m in either zone 7 or 8, and from what I can tell, a couple months behind you on a lot of this. How do you tell your zone anyway? Other than looking at the very generalized maps, that is.

  6. Brenda Dumont says:

    A big ‘thank you’ goes out to my mom who helped me with weeds last week! I have looked at a lot of weed sites to try an identify this particular weed that has been my arch enemy. It is some sort of thistle with deep roots and connects to the new little plants. Since we are gettin cool weather tomorrow, (in the 60s!!) I’ll probably be out there. Love your site.

  7. Brenda Dumont says:

    P.s. Checkout this food blog I think you might like. It’s called ‘Kiss My Spatula.’. Try the blueberry tart with the quinoa crust!! It is deelish!

  8. Judy says:

    Your mention of overwintering impatiens makes me just have to tell you – I have an asparagus fern that’s probably 10 years old, and in the fall, I put it in the basement & spritz it with water it when I think of it. When I put it out this year, I was delighted – and surprised! – to have impatiens growing around the edges, and petunias too!

    Another wonder – I have a jade “tree” (about 40 years old!) that also comes back inside in the fall, and I had impatiens growing in it this past winter. Ah, the wonders of Mother Nature…

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Calico — and thank you! How nice of you to send such kind wishes my way. Keeps me motivated to hear from readers like yourself (and yes, hopefully garden keeps me at least somewhat sane, tee hee).

      Hello, Judy. Yes! I have had that experience with lantanas, too, and sweet potato vine and scented geraniums — all the stuff around the edges of the pots, as you say. Fantastic “bonus” isn’t it?

      See you both soon again.

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