my november garden chores

chores-logoTHE WINDING DOWN is well under way in my cold zone, and a beautiful time of reflection and rest lies ahead…if only we can get the place cleaned up before really harsh weather says “stop.” Target extra-thorough cleanup first to areas where rodents and moles might do winter damage, 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. The garlic is in; the spinach (true!) will be the last thing I sow. And that’s not all I try to get done this month:

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.

If it all seems too hectic, remember: Seed catalogs in the easy chair are just ahead. 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 starts mid-month, through April. Other ways to help the birds are here.


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.

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 and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests.

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.


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 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 (see Sources), 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.

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

Categorieschores by month
  1. Bobster says:

    Thanks for such a comprehensive list of garden chores. I always pick up a couple new things, or often lots and lots of new things.

    There’s nothing relaxing about spending the next several months thinking “darn, I really needed to (blank) before the ground froze”. Knowing that the garden is really put away well will make those months with new garden books and catalogs that much more enjoyable and guilt-free.

    Alright my chore list for the day just doubled :-) Lots to do and it’s a beautiful day out there!

  2. James says:

    Hello Margaret,
    Re: spinach planting, I just built a cold frame (5x5ft), and was wondering if spinach would be appropriate (or any other edible crops for that matter).

    -j.m. in n.e. dutchess

  3. Yvonne at Country Gardener says:

    What a relief when the November chores are over! I can’t wait to curl up by the fire and forget the chores for a few months.

  4. stella richards says:

    speaking of amaryllis… I have a HUGE put that i’ve never divided that must have at least 12-15 large amaryllis bulbs in it by now. I’ve never put it in darkeness and it’s always flowered like a maniac from around Feb. through June. But the bulbs have begun lifting themselves out of the pot and this fall, for the first time, those leaf straps have begun to yellow after bringing the pot in. So what do I do? Thank YOU!!

  5. candylei says:

    If only we could hire 10 people to cut back, clean up, and plant bulbs, shovel the barnyard onto the gardens, etc.etc. it would be great…Instead I am able, all by myself, to turn the chair towards the window with seed catalogs. But I don’t have much time to sit down :’)

  6. Margaret says:

    @James: Yes, good place for spinach, I think. Only trick is that you don’t want things in a coldframe to get too warm, so if the sun is strong you often have to “vent” it (lift the lid a bit) to balance out the effects. Maybe you have an automatic vent hinge (on a thermostat). But a great place for salads and such.

    Welcome, Stella. I would let it dry off in darkness and go yellow the rest of the way, then repot (probably dividing it). Sounds like a beauty.

  7. Brian G. says:

    I never seem to get all my new purchases in the ground before it freezes. I still have three small trees and some ferns and hosta waiting for homes. Most will get planted this weekend but I may have to over-winter the trees on the enclosed porch (fully enclosed but no heat). Is this ok for a magnolia with it’s fleshy roots? I’ve done this before successfully with other plants (no casualties) but I’m worried about the magnolia.

  8. Amy says:

    Oh this is wonderful advice! I am still learning how to deal with my zone 6 yard, after living in Southern California for years with nothing but a container garden. I still have quite a to-do list left over from last Thursday, but it will get there. We don’t get too harsh a winter, so I can ease into it. Thank you also for the link to Project FeederWatch! I plan to join if it’s not too late.

  9. Tara Dillard says:

    Your to-do list is from another planet; zone for sure. Here, zone 8, it’s planting, transplanting, preparing new beds/soil, staining new patio adirondack chairs, phasing in a new gravel terrace, & more the next several months.

    And I do everything knowing temps won’t pop to 100f or a total water ban will appear stressing new plantings. Mosquitoes will only be a memory. Yes, indeed, I like this part of zone 8 gardening!

    Reading your chores is oddly sublime though so different.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  10. carol says:

    Please give me info on gardenias…mine are in the basement under artificial light, but they didnt bloom last summer…I do use acid supplement, but that doesn’t seem to help.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Carol. I am not a gardenia grower but they have some definite preferences and dislikes, such as never being subjected to temperatures below 50, having high humidity, and so on. Dry conditions (low humidity) is a common reason for failure to flower (assuming the plants are getting lots of light, which it sounds as if they are). I tried to find you a more complete how-to than I can type in here in comments, and the Minneapolis nursery chain called Bachman’s had a good one; easy to decipher and complete. You can read it here. Hope that helps.

  11. Liv Blumer says:

    A local (Northern Massachusetts, ie. between Northampton and Brattleboro) nurseryman told me that ironically the Viburnum Beetle is only striking natives, not exotics. He recommended spraying in the spring, not the fall. He also told me to reshape my hydrangas in the spring, not the fall. Less chance of disease.

    All feedback welcome.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Liv. The list of susceptible viburnums is not precisely across native/non-native lines, but you can get it here. As for the hydrangeas, I assume you mean the panicle types (H. paniculata) with white-to-pinkish flowers in July onward into fall, not the blue ones. Yes, those are best pruned in early spring, before the start growing again, as they bloom on new wood. See you soon again, I hope.

  12. Helga says:

    After reading some blogs I find I may have done a wrong thing. I piled leaves around the dwarf fruit trees, a lazy way to not have to rake them. I am overwhelmed with plate size oak leaves that cover all the beds and will take a century to decompose.

  13. connie gregory says:

    We stay at the Bergquist’s home each summer and live in Richmond, Va. I truly enjoy these knowledgeable newsletters; they are a help even here in the south. Thanks for including me on your list.


    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Connie. The house with the GREAT view: Bergquist’s. Lucky you. I hope this summer we will meet properly. I am happy to have you in my community here of gardening friends, and in my community proper here each summer. See you soon!

  14. Becky says:

    I need to clean out the pots my tomatoes were in. The plants had that awful blight that went around. Is it safe to compost the soil mixture they were in? It was miracle grow potting mix, bought this spring specifically for the tomatoes. I hate to waste anything, but I never want to see that nasty fungus again.

  15. ConeFlower says:

    I have planted my garlic, turnips, radished and spinach. All are up and looking very happy now. I see you said that spinach planted now will be for a very early spring picking. When will I be able to get radishes and turnips. Do I dig through the snow for them? I’m in zone 5 also, NE Ohio, not sure whether it’s 5a or 5b.

    Thanks for info.

  16. Fred from Loudonville, NY says:

    To me, November is the time to see the real bones of the garden. If all the flowers are gone, and all the foliage has died, and is cut back, AND you now just have a fence, or brown tree trunks to look at, then you really don’t have a garden that offers SOMETHING 365 days a year. This is the time to go out on your deck, or porch, and look out windows and think about what kinds of evergreen mounds, globes, columns, pyramids, topiaries, trees, etc that will bring your eyes WINTER INTEREST. Start on your left, slowly looking across your property to the right side, and visualize evergreens, ornamental grasses, plants with colored stems, or twisted growth habbits, and berries. The plants can be in beds or boarders, floating out in the lawn, and along paths. Every November, I see a spot where a new evergreen something can be added. The other day, I saw places for an upright yew, and a blue spruce mound. They will appear HOPEFULLY, next spring. Also, fancy iron garden decorations, garden trellises, and arbors, to name a few, give you something to focus on when winter is here.

  17. lynn druskat says:

    perhaps we should be well hydrated to entire the winter as well? i love your intimacy with the outside world, thanks for sharing, it comes to welcome ears. L

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