my september 2010 garden chores

THE FALL IS COMING, the fall is coming. Nothing to worry about, Chicken Little, if the garden’s been planned for enjoyment in all seasons…well, unless you slack off now and let those foxy weeds go to seed and gobble up the whole place. No, no definitive “end” to the season lies ahead, and some of us even feel happy about the coming of slightly quieter, more contemplative times where less obvious garden stars can shine. Peak planting and dividing time is coming up now; make that work include some focus on the addition of fall and winter plants to the landscape.

AS YOU BEGIN to wind down and clean up, take notes of what worked and didn’t. Mark areas that would have been easier to maintain with a workhorse groundcover in place, for instance, or areas where more bulbs might fit. I have already made a walkabout and identified a few shrubs whose days are numbered; just not enough bang for the buck (well, for the space they take up).


BE SURE TO WATER trees and shrubs now through hard frost, so that they enter dormancy in a well-hydrated state–particularly if you have had a dry season as I have. Evergreens (needled ones and broadleaf types like rhododendron, too) are particularly vulnerable to desiccation and winterburn if not well watered before the cold and winds set in.

DON’T PANIC IF EVERGREENS start to show some browning or yellowing of needles this month and next. The oldest, innermost needles typically shed after a few years on the tree.

HOPEFULLY YOU STOPPED FEEDING woody plants in July or August. Promoting more soft growth after July-ish isn’t good; time for them to start moving toward the hardening-off phase of their cycle. No more eats till earliest spring.

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. Ditto with suckers and water sprouts. No hard pruning now, though; too late to risk encouraging regrowth.


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. That said, my earliest crop of lettuce each spring comes from a ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ plant I just let flower and self-sow in a corner of the garden year after year. Untidy to some eyes, but it always makes me smile.

PARSLEY AND CHIVES can be potted up and brought indoors for offseason use, or freeze some (or give the plants some extra protection and keep harvesting from the garden). A few garlic cloves in a pot will yield a supply of chive-like (but spicier) garlic greens all winter for garnish.

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.

AS AREAS COME EMPTY from harvest, build vegetable-garden soil by sowing cover crops: medium red clover if you get right to it, or perhaps winter rye if you don’t do some areas till mid-fall. These “green manures” will be turned under to improve soil tilth and fertility.

IF YOU HARVESTED YOUR own garlic, save the best heads with the biggest cloves for replanting later this month or next (about a month before frost is in the ground). Otherwise, order bulbs now. 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.


DON’T DEADHEAD FADED perennials, biennials and annuals if you want to collect seed (non-hybrids only) or plan to let some self-sow. Nicotiana, annual poppies, larkspur, clary sage and many others fall into this leave-alone group. So do plants with showy or bird-friendly seedheads, like coneflowers, some sedums, clematis and grasses.

DAYLILIES can be dug and divided as they complete their bloom cycle, right into fall, if needed.

PEONIES are best divided and transplanted in late August through September, if they need it. Remember with these fussy guys that “eyes” must not be buried more than an inch or two beneath the soil surface. Want more peonies? Now’s the time to order.

MANY POPULAR ANNUALS can be overwintered as young plants if you take and root cuttings now rather than try to nurse along leggy older specimens. Geraniums, coleus, wax begonias, even impatiens (to name just a few common ones), if grown in good light indoors and kept pinched and bushy, will yield another generation of cuttings for next spring’s transplants. Probably best to expend this effort and space on things you really treasure—an unusual form of something, not the garden variety.

IF TUBEROUS BEGONIAS like ‘Bonfire’ or ‘Bellfire’ are starting to go slack, let them dry off and rest early, or they will rot. Take your cue from the plants!

ORDER BULBS promptly, and plant as they arrive (lilies most urgently). Remember our “early, middle, late” mantra when ordering, for a prolonged show. Many bulb questions answered here.

PREPARE NEW beds for fall planting by smothering grass or weeds with layers of recycled corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, then put mulch on top.

RE-EDGE BEDS to make a clean line and define them. Don’t let them get overrun just because summer’s wound down. A clean edge makes a big difference.


REST AMARYLLIS BULBS by putting them in a dry, dark place where they will have no water at all for a couple of months. I put mine in a little-used closet.

IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED repotting, do it before they come inside later this month (less messy than in the house!). 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.


MID-AUGUST TO MID-SEPTEMBER is prime lawn-renovation and planting time in the North. Have you reseeded yet?

DON’T BAG OR RAKE clippings; let them lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil, right through the last mowing in late autumn.


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.

DON’T LET THE HEAP dry out completely, or it will not “cook.” Turning it to aerate will also hasten decomposition, but things will rot eventually even if not turned. I extract more finished material and screen it each fall, to work into the gardens (and make more room for incoming fresh debris).

On using this list in your garden: The monthly A Way to Garden chores are based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.

  1. Cathie Nelson says:

    Are there more nurserys that handle “Witches Brooms” plants besides Rich’s Foxwillow Pines Nursery. I feel their prices are very high. The plants are very nice and healthy but they are out of myprice range.

  2. Charlie says:

    Hey, I didn’t get August chores done yet or July for that matter. Ho Hum. Well, better luck next year. Seriously, I do appreciate your site, all the great info you share, and especially the monthly chore list.

    Charlie in Central PA

  3. Mareline says:

    I have a cornus winter flame which has had yellow leaves for about the last month. It’s branches are getting so heavy that it no longer is a natural screen. Wondering what to do to get it into a better condition and shape.
    Any ideas would be appreciated.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mareline. The twig dogwoods benefits from hard pruning (near the ground) every few years or so, which makes them more colorful (younger wood is showier than old, thick stuff) and will also rejuvenate the shape/structure. If you can’t bear to take it all down (and this is best done in late winter, not now) take out the oldest stems just above the base.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Mareline. I’m afraid that if there are lots of perennials already growing, the only way is to dig the grass out by hand, a clump at a time. If there was a lot of room between the perennials (or the grass was at the front edge of a bed where nothing was growing) I’d smother it with thick layers of newsprint or cardboard, covered in mulch. Bu that’s unmanageable where desired plants are already in place. So weeding — again and again — being sure to dig the roots, too.

  4. terryl says:

    How I wish my aches and pains did not keep me from doing what needs to be done more often. But I too enjoy the lists (and the rest of the site).

  5. Pru says:

    Hi Margaret. I think I am right on track so far as I did a bit of a sort out of the garden last weekend. I am planning on moving a tree peony and then adding a new peony when it arrives in October. I would be grateful if you could let me know if you think it is best to move the tree peony now, and then plant the new one in October. I am always very grateful for your advice, and for your list. I had better get started on the other things on the list!

  6. Mari Barnes says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I’ve got a Rose of Sharon that’s very tree-like. Will I damage it irreparably if I lop off about 3 feet so that it’s more like a shrub? Should any pruning be done now or should I wait for spring?

    Thanks for such a wonderful site.


    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mari. You can cut it back pretty hard, actually, but I’d wait until late winter/early spring before it starts to push new growth, not do now (assuming you’re in a climate where there is a cold winter). Annual pruning back will in fact yield larger flowers (though fewer of them) so the plant may be a little showier as well. An overgrown one tends to have lots of small blooms.

  7. Rae says:

    My gardenia standard has developed a lot of yellow leaves here in zone 5. It bloomed beautifully all summer long. Summer has been hot, but I kept the plant watered. Could it be a lack of iron?

  8. elise says:

    I made headway in my fall cleaning. keeping to the 3 d’s. Cut back the peonies that surround the car park, taking no prisoners along the way. Also, cleared the zuchini plant of it’s d’s, hoping for a few more before the first frost!
    Next I need to dead head the hydrangea, but hoping to have the view of the full tree for another week or so.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hello, Elise; nice to “see” you here. You are way ahead of me … but I thin it’s time to get underway as I feel like we are in for an early fall. I like the “taking no prisoners” part. :)

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