my september 2012 garden chores

THE GARDEN HAS A LOT OF LIFE left in it—the autumn is one of my Zone 5B location’s most beautiful moments. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have fall cleanup already on my mind. In fact, selectively tidying up here and there as the summer gradually gives way gives me both a jump on the horticultural housework of October-November, but also a better-looking seasonal display. I’m tossing some weary annuals, but deadheading those that could go another mile (like my nicotiana, coleus and zinnias), and even re-cutting the edges of certain beds one last time.

Prefer the Podcast?

THE SEPTEMBER GARDEN CHORES were among the topics on this week’s edition of the A Way to Garden podcast, recorded live each week with the smallest NPR station in the nation: WHDD in nearby Sharon, Connecticut (a.k.a. Robin Hood Radio). You can stream it right now, or subscribe free on iTunes or the Stitcher app so you never miss another episode.  Look for the August 27, 2012 show.

TYPICALLY THE SEPTEMBER CHORES come on the heels of the hottest, driest part of my garden year here—and this year has been generally dry, not just lately. If that’s your situation, too, it will be extra-important to be sure to water your trees and shrubs right through when the ground freezes. Weeding is the other big September focus (can you even ID your weeds?).

YES, THE FALL IS COMING, the fall is coming. But there is nothing to worry about, Chicken Little, if the garden’s been planned for all seasons…well, unless you slack off now and let those foxy weeds go to seed and gobble up the place. No, no definitive “end” to the season lies ahead–remember my 365-day garden philosophy?–and some of us even feel happy about the coming of more contemplative times where less-obvious garden stars can shine.

PEAK PLANTING AND DIVIDING time is upon us; make that include some emphasis on the addition of fall and winter plants to the landscape.

Maybe something gold (the color that does the most work here in my garden in every season)?

Maybe something full of fruit, like winterberries or viburnum or other showy things?

IMPORTANT: AS YOU BEGIN to wind down and tidy up here and there, 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. One recent September, I made a walkabout and identified various shrubs whose days were numbered; just not enough bang for the buck (well, for the space they take up), or simply too big to fit where they grew anymore.Out they came early the next spring. It’s a good time to think ahead.


AGAIN: IF YOU’RE ON THE DRY SIDE, be sure to water trees and shrubs now through hard frost, 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 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.

HOPEFULLY YOU STOPPED FEEDING woody plants in July or August. Promoting more soft growth after July-ish isn’t good; 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 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.

MY FALL VEGETABLE GARDEN PLANS were covered in this archive story and podcast. Still ahead to plant: more salad, garlic (next month) and spinach. How you can plan for an extended harvest in every region.

HAVE YOU HAD TOMATO TROUBLES? There is a range of possible tomato problems to be sure. It’s always something with tomatoes (need to know how to ripen green tomatoes?), but who could garden without them? If your issue was cucumbers or squash, start here.

LOOKING FOR RECIPE IDEAS for all that produce, including cucumbers and zucchinis galore? A roundup of 15 food-storage ideas for peak harvest time.  Or the archive of all my recipes.

AS AREAS COME EMPTY from harvest, build vegetable-garden soil by sowing cover crops. These “green manures” will be turned under to improve soil tilth and fertility. Remember not to sow in areas reserved for fall-planted crops like garlic!

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. How to freeze your garden herbs.

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.

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; don’t panic.


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). 7 tips on shopping smart for flower bulbs. Remember our “early, middle, late” mantra when ordering, for a prolonged show. Many bulb-growing questions answered in my Bulb FAQ.

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? Paul Tukey at SafeLawns [dot] org shares some overseeding how-to’s.

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.


I USE 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. narf7 says:

    I LOVE this blog and I never cease to get excited about reading posts like this, even if our season is just starting as yours starts to slow. I also love those red gardening crocs. I love them because a chef that I like to watch on television wears the very same accoutrements on his feet. Gardeners and chef’s, feeding body and soul and all clever enough to pick this wonderful footwear (and bright red thank you!) which reinforced my initial opinion that cooks and gardeners are the salt of the earth. Thank you for this excellent post. It is so excellent, that I am actually going to save it and use it when our own weather stops baking the earth solid and when the leaves start to fall again. From foggy early spring Tasmania, we salute you! :)

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Nancy. I don’t know where you are located, but generally early- to mid-fall weather is cooler and moister, and rather than concentrating on foliage and upward growth, fall-planted woody things can work on putting down roots before the ground freezes. (Again, not sure where you are and if it even freezes!) Here, nurseries will work until well into the fall transplanting many trees and shrubs, with some exceptions. So it depends on where you are, how the weather has been and is (soil moisture!), whether the specimen is being dug from a field (more stressful for it since there will be root damage) or is already in a nursery pot (less stressful), and what species it is. Slow-to-establish things can be riskier. I think this Iowa State article on fall planting is a good place to start.

  2. Lorie says:

    Here’s what the eastern NE drought has left us with: Old growth lindens bare from Japanese beetles…yes, we should have sprayed; yes we will start a savings account to have it done next spring…but there are SO many. Landscapes littered with crisp linden leaves…it “rains” daily. Massive oaks that feel threatened to the point of dropping millions of acorns requiring daily (at least) blowing or sweeping and are a real hazard to the walker. Old hickories that are playing copy-cat with the oaks. Lawns (I don’t have one :) ) browned out except for the occasional nicely green weed. It’s not a pretty picture.
    But…the pots of coleus still smile; the Limelights cooperated nicely; #25 of sugar turned into nectar made it a splendid summer for the orioles and hummers. Hope springs eternal in the heart of the gardener, old though she is.

  3. nancy says:

    Hi Margaret –
    So appreciate your gardening resourcefulness. Would you have any advice for holding over unplanted lily tubers of Gloriosa superba Rothschildiana?
    Thanks and hi to Jack.

  4. Mary Beth says:

    Hi Margaret
    My garden SUCKED this year in Bozeman Mt (zone 3-4)! It was way too dry and even though I kept it watered the results were minimal. The deer ate what was left of my late season harvest and so I’m looking forward to winter and snow! I’m enjoying your website…please keep it going!

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to see you, Mary Beth, and so sorry about the weather there. Friends in SD said the same, and many readers across the Midwest and so forth as well. I am hoping for a proper winter here, too. Snow would be very welcome!

  5. Jen says:

    I have a honeysuckle vine that looks like it could use a little trimming back. It had a lot of growth this year. Is it safe to prune it now, or would that encourage it to leaf out as weather gets cooler?

  6. Inge says:

    Hi Margaret – The picture of your purple lilac tree has inspired me to clean up my white one and let it be a ‘tree’. I am clearning a big space under it now. Any ideas about what to plant under it? P.S. I have lots of deer and I’m in Washington state. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.