my november 2012 garden chores

YES, I KNOW. YOU RAKED THE LEAVES, but somebody moved them back onto the lawn and into the beds. Here, too.  That’s what we get in a windy October-November cusp: a chance to do it all again. This time around, the storm called Sandy promises to set up do-overs with a vengeance. While I’m cursing all the re-raking, I keep in mind that garden cleanup serves a higher purpose, not just making things look tidy and “put away,” but also eliminating hiding places and prime overwintering grounds for many garden pests, insects and animals alike. What I’m focusing on as I do over many of my October chores this November:

Listen to the Chores in a Podcast

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 or on the Stitcher app. Look for the October 29, 2012 edition.

A quick aside: While I tease the 2012 garden apart, I’m making my 2013 gardening resolutions, remember? Bring a pad and pen outside with you; this is the time for recording inspiration about what to do differently next year.

And this: 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.


I WORK AS I RAKE AND MOW, and even trim a bit here and there, to prevent a buildup of places next year’s viburnum leaf beetle, squash bugs and borers and cabbage worms, and to limit damage by deer, mice and voles. What it comes down to: eliminate habitat and hiding places, and eliminate some of the population. Pest by pest, some particulars.

BE EXTRA-CONSCIOUS when cleaning up around plants that showed signs of weakness or outright illness. You may want to put your impatiens, roots and all, in the trash, not the compost this year, for instance. Impatiens downy mildew is spreading fast, and can overwinter in the soil. Or maybe you had tomato diseases and wonder what to do to prevent a repeat? Use the usual extra care under roses, peonies, lilacs, fruit trees…reduce the spores now by raking up the infected debris.

WEEDS ARE PESTS, too, right? Get a headstart on 2013 population control with them now as well. Make a new bed (even where turf grows) or smother weedy areas with cardboard or newsprint, and mulch.


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? Make room! Prime planting time for deciduous trees and shrubs continues into this month, sometimes longer if weather permits and the ground show no signs of freezing.

SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE issues when leaves fall and their egg cases are easier to see. Remove egg cases by pruning off affected wood, between now and April-ish. 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.  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.


ARE YOUR VEGETABLES from the garden or the farm market stored properly to last as long as possible? Here’s how. I’m still working on getting some shelling beans to dry, like this.

HAVE A ROSEMARY that needs overwintering–that cannot stay outdoors where you garden? Try these tactics.

OR PERHAPS A CERTAIN FIG TREE is hoping you will give it some extra winter protection, so it can in turn be ready to make fruit next year? Overwintering fig trees 101.

THE GARLIC is in, mostly (but there’s still time); the spinach (true!) will be the last thing I sow, selecting a variety like ‘Tyee’ that can stand the cold, then tucking it under a garden blanket. I prepare a seedbead for peas and spinach for next spring sowing now, too, to get a headstart on such early crops. Ideally garlic would be in a few weeks or a month before frost is in the ground. How to grow garlic.

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. 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 early next 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.


QUICK: Tender things that are still outdoors or otherwise unprotected need your attention at once, in order of just how tender they are. How to overwinter tropicals and other non-hardy plants.

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. (And try some “bunching tulips,” the ones with a whole bouquet in a single bulb. My favorites!)

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. If it’s got too much fuel in it, add stabilizer, from the hardware or auto supply store.


LEAVES ARE precious, and make great leaf mold when composted. Maybe start a leaves-only compost pile this year? Running over dry leaves (and other dry non-woody material) with the mower to shred will reduce the area needed for such piles.

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. Joanna says:

    I must admit to an untidy garden, but then again along with the pests grow the good guys. What do you do about making sure they are a part of the ecosystem of your garden?

    As for all my leaves, they got buried under about 6 inches of snow, as did some of my dahlias that I didn’t get chance to lift. It is due to warm up so I shall see if I can rescue them. Hopefully the snow blanketed them from the frost.

  2. Olivia says:

    I have a question about the strawberries. I have my strawberries planted in a mulit-tiered container on the patio. This was the first year I planted them, and got a few good berries.

    I have read that you are to mow the foliage to an inch of the crowns and mulch with straw. Should I cut all the foliage back and mulch in the container as well?

    Thanks for any suggestions you can give me.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Olivia. Not sure how cold it gets where you are, or what the pots are made of (or how big they are). Above-ground is a tougher environment that in the ground, of course — and many kind of pots simply crack in winter freezes/thaws as well. I’d move the pot to my unheated garage (where it gets cold but doesn’t heave/thaw or get so much wind etc.), or put it up against the side of the house and mulch it (but knowing that will invite mice to explore, I prefer the garage with pots). You can clean up the foliage in late winter if need be.

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