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my september garden chores

chores-logoTHE 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).

TREES & SHRUBS

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 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.

VEGETABLE, FRUIT & HERBS

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. Sow seeds of bush basil in a pot, too, and grow on a very sunny windowsill if you are a really determined type.

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.

FLOWER GARDEN

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. This ultra-wet season was too much for mine, which have been under cover in the garage drying for weeks now.

ORDER BULBS promptly (see Sources), 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.

HOUSEPLANTS

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.

LAWNS

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.

COMPOST HEAP & MULCH

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.

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 and based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.

Categorieschores by month
  1. Chris in So Calif says:

    HI Margaret,
    I love your garden blog. I think my passion for gardening was planted as a seed from my grandparents garden. As a little girl, I always felt as if I were in a fantasy world there. Your blog brings me back to happy childhood memories. I live and garden in a very hot climate in So.Calif. Hopefully in a few years (3years,8months,10 days), my husband and I will retire and move from the heat. I try to enjoy the present and with this heat there are many benefits such as wonderful citrus and a very long growing season. I look forward to a slower pace in the autumn and winter. Thank you so very, very much for your generosity in creating this beautiful and practical blog. I wish I lived near you so that I could participate in one of your garden tours. Your garden is BEAUTIFUL!!! Your frogs and toads are delightful!!!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Chris. You made me laugh with your retirement countdown! I am so appreciative of your kind words, and the story of your grandparents’ garden. My grandmother’s place was like that…a fantasy realm. It really stuck with me, too. See you soon again, I hope.

  2. ann says:

    Ah yes, Grandma’s garden with strawberries that never since have tasted as good and snowballs that made even
    a Dakota girl long for winter once again.. Love and hate affair with September as the light is almost as great as October (GRATEFUL for looking east this AM to see that brilliant red ball rising) and steamy August nights getting me in touch with passion I thought I had forgotten. September Nostalgia but haven’t found slower pace in our short growing season..yet.

  3. Sophia in S. Calif says:

    To Chris,
    Are up my clone? The only difference is my countdown is a little shorter. From So. Cal. to Oregon we go!
    My childhood garden memories include wild strawberries in the field behind our house in New Jersey. Oh so yummy! I’ve gardened in N. Dakota, (the best potatoes), Colorado, (even grew garbanzos, only 2 to a pod) and N. Cal. Look forward to seasons and the bounty that the Willamette Valley offers. Do buy great organic strawberries here that are small and deep red to the core, reminicent of the wild ones.
    So, Chris where are you going in 3, 8 10?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sophia. Glad to meet you (and glad that you met Chris!). Hilarious, all of us gardeners, isn’t it? The Willamette Valley is said to be one of the great growing regions anywhere, so you are blessed. See you soon, and thanks for your nice comment.

  4. Deirdre says:

    I’ve ordered my bulbs. I’ve always admired the masses of small bulbs I’ve seen in photographs, and now I’m going to try it. I ordered 100 snowdrops, 100 tommie crocus, 100 winter aconites, and 100 glory of the snow. My back will curse me in about a month, but my eyes will bless me come February.

  5. heather says:

    Hi Margaret

    How long does it take the amaryllis to rebloom once you take it out of the closet? I have one that is just leaves right now. Will take it out in early November to reinvigorate with hopes of a Christmas bloom. Is that enough time?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Heather: In the darkness, those leaves will probably wither, which is fine. The first year out of the closet the bulbs are sometimes uncooperative, and resist coaxing right away. Eventually you get them on a set schedule of your own, but remember they are still on last year’s schedule from the grower (if you adopted it recently).

      It also depends which kind of amaryllis you have, as some are more inclined to quick flower development than others, and then the conditions in your home will impact it and so on…always multiple factors!…but generally I think 7 to 10 weeks or thereabouts, after 8 to 10 weeks of rest…with some bulbs sulking the first year and resisting your coaxing.

      The key: DO NOT water again until it shows signs of life, or dries off again for a few weeks. Trying to push an unprepared bulb can induce rot.

  6. It is always good to know that all gardening doesn’t cease during the winter months. My question is similar to Heather’s above, can you recommend the best way to keep herbs thriving indoors in pots? Also, do I need to wait until Christmas to start forcing bulbs when it becomes cold outside and I am excited for the sight of amaryllis and paperwhites?

  7. Chris in So Calif says:

    Hi Sophia,
    Since we are on the west coast I know you may be awake. What a pleasant surprise to receive a response from Margaret and then you!!! A wonderful community of nature lovers… Margarete’s blog is one of the most beautiful blogs I’ve seen. I love the Willamette Valley. We fell in love with a little town called Talent. I love Oregon as there are so many organic farms. Pave the way fellow gardener!

  8. Great list! I’m potting up chives this afternoon, have a cover crop sown and as soon as hubby gets the rototiller out we’re going to get next year’s expanded strawberry patch tilled and mulched for the winter. We’ve got new kale, carrots, and beets growing for winter harvest. The beans have been been pulled and fed to the camel and other critters…I wanted to compost the vines but they were standing there beggin’ at the fence so I couldn’t say no!

    Love you blog, Kim

  9. Carole C. says:

    I noticed a few days ago that my amarylis that has been sitting outside decided to send up a new leaf just as I was thinking about giving it a rest! I will be taking it back to LI from the Berkshires on Monday but I’m not sure what to do with it. Should I wait before allowing it to rest and then cut the leaves, or place it in a dark closet with the leaves on next week? Last year was the first time I had the bulb over the winter and did not get any bloom but I did read your information and will give it another chance.

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