IT NEVER RAINS, BUT IT POURS. Six-plus inches (after almost none most of the growing season) fell on the last day of September and first of the new month here, eliminating at least one chore—watering—from the list that gets pretty hectic again about now. I have tempted the fates by draping, not bringing in, my houseplants so far…but even I can pretend no longer: It is fall. In they come, and down much of the garden goes. Shall we get to our tucking in and tidying together?
THE NEW SEASON IS HEATING UP, at least visually, even as temperatures trend downward. Cleanup is (hopefully) under way in earnest, with time out 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. 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, new birds.
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:
TREES & SHRUBS
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 and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests.
BE SURE TO WATER trees now through hard frost 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.
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.
VEGETABLE, FRUIT & HERBS
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.
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. 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.