THE 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.
TREES & SHRUBS
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.
VEGETABLE, FRUIT & HERBS
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.
COMPOST HEAP & MULCH
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.)