my october 2012 garden chores

OCTOBER IS A JUGGLING ACT: last call for so many chores up North here, but which balls can we keep in the air concurrently? Quick, now: Don’t drop the canning and freezing—but keep at the cleanup, too. And I know I’m still transplanting, tucking tropicals into the cellar, and…uh-oh, this is starting to feel like a video of the chaos of spring, but in reverse motion. Here’s what is on my garden calendar this month:

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 1, 2012 edition.

In my Zone 5B, if we made it through September without a frost (we did!) we’re unlikely to escape another month. Wherever you are, it’s probably tick, tick, tick. So first things first: As temperatures trend downward, and weather gets more unsettled, 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.

I’m picking away already at garden cleanup, which by mid-month or so will involve a lot of raking well into November. Leaves can be 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.

Don’t clean up too soon, though. If a perennial has nice fall color or seedheads, let it stand for you and the birds to enjoy, just a little longer.

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.

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.

I’m grateful now for great fruiting plants (like hollies, viburnums, and crabapples) and so are the birds. There’s still time to add some to your landscape this fall, along with winter-interest shrubs like witch-hazel.

Some of us even feel happy about the coming riches: berries and other fruits, bark, a new season of birds.

Peak planting time for bulbs and for many woody things continues through month’s end or so; make that work include some focus on the addition of fall and winter plants to the landscape. The October shore details:


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 of any I missed and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests.

BE SURE TO WATER trees now through hard frost if your 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.


TIME TO COOK UP the last bits from the vegetable garden into a batch of vegetable soup or ‘Tomato Junk’, or local/homegrown apples into easy applesauce, checking on the kettles between rounds of raking and cutbacks outdoors. All my harvest-stashing tips are recapped here. With such delicious reminders of summer and fall in the freezer, and the right plants in the garden, there’s no season’s “end” to fear.


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). How to plant garlic: Prepare a sunny spot, and plant each clove 2 or so 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.


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). How I think when I’m ordering flower bulbs (seven tips). 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 (or a cocktail shaker full, tee hee), 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. An unusual way to grow these familiar bulbs.

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.


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.



  1. Katie C. says:

    I have two spider plants that need repotting. The problem is that they are terribly root bound and I can’t/don’t want to use a bigger pot. Do I just trim the roots back (how much?) and replant? They are currently finishing their summer on the back deck railing. Northern Virginia still has some warm weather to go.

  2. Margaret, a friend was telling me about overwintering peas just like we do with broad (fava) beans. Have you any experience in this? I am a little unsure.

    Thanks for the tips. The allotment is pretty cleared now – just cauliflowers and cabbages to go and then I shall start concentrating on the garden. Unfortunately, I have neglected the garden more this summer as I have concentrated on the allotment. Time to make amends.

  3. Jason says:

    I will heed your info on storing tender bulbs, for me cannas and caladiums. Past efforts have resulted in plastic bags of bulb mush, but I will be more careful this time.

  4. Sharon says:

    I’ve been looking forward to and dreading this time of year at the same time. Looking forward to digging in the dirt and the beauty that will come of my labor, and dreading how many aches will pop up as I hurry to get everything done before it’s too late.

  5. Kathy M. says:

    Love to see the birds eating off the seedheads in the perennial border and this morning had the first flock of traveling Robins and Flickers enjoying the Dogwood berries. I can see alot of work to be done but here in Va we have been having a late heat wave so I will wait till later in the month. Heading up north next week on a cruise to Canada for 10 days so should be rested and ready to tackle the garden chores when I return.

  6. Regina Bartlett says:

    I have been doing clean up in my front and back yards and this includes repotting some root bound plants. My succulents were totally root bound. I go to sleep at night and feel like a weight lifter. This is a reminder to all…be sure to wear gloves! I am a musician and my hands and fingers sure get rough, dry and cracked if I don’t remember to put on heavy lotion and gloves. I love this time of year. I also cleaned my greenhouse and am looking at my successes and failures there! Thanks for all your great information. I went to Succulent Gardens recently and was so inspired there.

  7. M. A. Smith says:

    Thank you for your neat and organized calendar! I also like the idea of taking a pencil and pad of paper to make notes for next year’s garden plan. Definitely is a ‘Way to Garden” best practice!

  8. Marian says:

    I line in zone 9, is it ok to plant edible peas & sweet potatoes now? I would love the soup cookbook. I make lentil soup with fresh sorrel & Swiss chard, just delicious.

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