Margaret's garden clogs and trowelNATIONAL LEAF MONTH: That’s what I’d declare it if I were in charge of such things. November is nonstop leaves here, and a good rake is my constant companion. But how much leaf cleanup to do, and how much to let lie in the name of the greater environmental good?

Whatever tool you choose—leaf blower, anyone?—and however hard you work, thanks to that prankster the wind there is no perfection possible, though, and maybe that’s a good thing, because leaves left to lie where they fall can be a home to unseen beneficial creatures (more on that below).

In go the last bulbs this month (including garlic, if it hasn’t yet); into the cellar go the last tender things. I’m still weeding (true; until the ground freezes and I can no more), mowing (until it stops growing, I’ll persist)—and also saving some seeds for use next year.

If I didn’t have a big fence, I’d be upping my deer-control measures right now, too, like this. The full to-do list for the month:

garden elsewhere? regional links

THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To adjust timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). But read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.

transforming leaves and other debris

I RAKE to eliminate thick accumulation in the formal beds and borders (an invitation to voles and mice in winter, and also an obstacle next spring to emerging plants). With rake or mulching mower, I also work to prevent matted buildup of leaves on the lawn. The result of both efforts gets recycled into mulch and soil-improving compost; I never send leaves away from my property to the “trash.”

To up the habitat value of my landscape, though, I let leaves lie where they fall wherever I can, simulating what would be happening on the forest floor. The ecology of leaf litter is surprising, said Rhiannon Crain of The Habitat Network, a former joint project of Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy. A lot of species of Lepidopteran caterpillars leave their larvae and eggs on tree leaves of their host species in the fall months, so that come spring the emergent insects will still be near their host tree. Read more about the importance of leaf litter, and other nature-inspired, less-fussy cleanup tactics.

Though I lamented the apparent extinction of really high-quality bamboo leaf rakes, and at first resisted a new-fangled metal version, it turns out it’s really good; here’s that story (and that rake). Other gardeners swear by their leaf blowers, and sometimes I’m tempted.

LEAVES that we do have to move off key spots make great leaf mold when composted to add back as organic matter to beds. Start a leaves-only compost pile for leaves you do collect, and use the proceeds as mulch next year. Running over dry leaves (and other dry non-woody material) with the mower to shred will reduce the area needed, and speed its breakdown, or so will the best blowers and bigger vacuum-like gear.

BE A COMPOSTING PRO: Pile up materials as you cut back faded plants, following Lee Reich’s easy plan (video how-to included). First extract finished compost and topdress your vegetable-garden beds with it, getting a jump on spring soil prep.

GOT ANOTHER COMPOST QUESTION? I bet my compost FAQ page has the answer.

best practices for the birds

IT’S FEEDER SEASON, even for those of us who don’t feed in frost-free months (or can’t, because of marauding black bear, as is my issue). I begin again when there is frost in the ground, around month’s end, or when the snows fly. Are you ready? The feeder I chose shuts when a heavier animal tries to latch onto it (you know who I am talking about). The seed chamber is also cleverly ventilated, so humidity or damp doesn’t result in gunked-up seed in the tube. It’s small enough to be very easy to clean regularly, to prevent transmission of disease from bird to bird. More on how (and what) I feed birds.

ONE EXTRA BIRD-FEEDING THOUGHT: I do broadcast handfuls of seed in October and November in a few key spots on pavement near the house approximately where the feeders will eventually hang, to reconnect myself with returning juncos, titmice, chickadees, mourning doves, white-throated sparrows and others who winter in plain sight here. I think we both enjoy this little preamble (and so do the squirrels–naughty!).

MORE TIPS for putting out the welcome mat for the birds include cleaning out nest boxes and these other important to-do’s, and also plan to help birds stay safe from window strikes and predation by cats (expert advice on that).

UNFROZEN, AVAILABLE WATER 365 days a year is the Number 1 thing you can do in support of birds and other wildlife. I keep a hole in the surface of each of my water gardens, so overwintering frogs and salamanders and fish don’t suffocate, and so birds and animals can have a drink (or a splash). Water-garden wintertime prep.

seeds you can still save

YES, IT’S BEST TO PLAN what seeds you’ll save, starting at planting time in spring. But even this late, some garden harvest—including the last beans, or winter squash—may hold hidden treasure. Re-read Ken Greene of Hudson Valley Seed Library’s basic how-to on seed saving, to learn which ones are easy, and whether your various squash will have crossed or not, for instance. Or read about the Organic Seed Alliance’s tactics (including a link to a free, 30-page book-like pdf download loaded with both the botanical science and sensible tips, too).

safekeeping for tender things

OBVIOUSLY, NON-HARDY THINGS must be stashed safely, and up North, the process of moving them into shelter began in September and October. I got advice for stashing tropicals from Dennis Schrader, a wholesale nurseryman who specializes in them, and from designer and nursery owner Kathy Tracey.  (Also in the archives: overwintering rosemary, and storing figs, and a general page of plant-stashing tips.)

STORING THE VEGETABLE HARVEST in the correct spots—no, a winter squash and an onion won’t be happy in the same temperature and humidity!–means longer-lasting enjoyment. Here’s how, in a chart and story.

are bulbs all planted?

MANY FLOWER BULBS can go in the ground surprisingly late, even up North, but what they can’t do is sit forgotten in your garage all winter. Get those bulbs in (and even purchase more on closeout sales, if you have time for extra digging). My bulb FAQ page. (Garlic, another bulb, is covered under the vegetable subheading below.)

an ounce of prevention

CLEAN UP with a focus on prevention–of pests, weeds, and general chaos in the coming year. First hit things that showed signs of disease, weed or insect infestation, in case weather curtails your cleanup before you get to everything. More tips:

  • Weed war: Minimize weed woes for next year. Some weeds are actually easier to thwart in late summer and fall, like these, and I’m still pulling what I see and deadheading seed-laden ones, at least. All my weed-control posts.
  • Pest control: Deer, voles, cabbage worms, squash bugs, cucumber beetles and other garden pests can be limited with tactics like this. (If you had viburnum leaf beetle, start your rounds of egg-case elimination now. The details.)
  • Clear turf or weeds from around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents and rabbits. Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round, sunk an inch or so into the soil, and standing 18 inches high. Use half-inch mesh or smaller.
  • And this: last call for soil samples for testing (how that works). If you had areas where something didn’t fare well, gather a soil sample before the ground freezes and take or send it in for analysis to your local Cooperative Extension service.

trees & shrubs

BET YOU WISH you’d added more woody plants that show off in fall. Plan to do so for next year–many can even be planted this late in autumn, if your nursery or a mail-order source still has stock. Or what about my top conifers for winter, and year-round, beauty?

FALL IS A GREAT TIME for planting woody things, though here in Zone 5B I stop planting around early November. If you are still at it where you garden: Don’t dig an extra-large hole, or amend the backfill with lots of compost or peat moss. Here’s why that’s bad for transplants—plus how to prune their roots before planting.

BE EXTRA-VIGILANT cleaning up under fruit trees, as fallen fruit and foliage allowed to overwinter invites 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.

SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE later this month, when leaves fall and egg cases are easier to see. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood, before April-ish, to reduce larvae and beetle issues next 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.

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, but don’t do aesthetic pruning now. A pruning roundup is here.

vegetables, fruit & herbs

IF NEXT YEAR’S GARDEN plans include a patch of strawberries or asparagus, do the tilling and soil preparation now so bare-root plants ordered over the winter can be planted extra early come spring. Mulch existing strawberry plants with a couple of inches of (guess what?) straw. Let asparagus foliage go brown on its own; don’t cut back till later, or even earliest spring.

GARLIC IN YET? Ideally it should be about a month before frost is in the ground, but it’s pretty cooperative with slightly later planting. 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, then mulch. Green growth may appear this fall; no worry.

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. I prefer to harvest my green herbs and store them in these ways for winter use. Storing a rosemary?

flower garden

PROTECT VULNERABLE ROSES from winter damage in coldest zones by mounding up their crowns with a 6- to 12-inch layer of soil before the ground freezes. After all is frozen, add a layer of leaf mulch to further insulate.

CANNAS, DAHLIAS AND OTHER tender bulb-like things need careful digging for indoor storage. There are many methods, but the basics: Once frost blackens the foliage, cut back 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 an unheated basement or crawl space, around 40-50 degrees, in boxes or pots filled with bark chips or peat moss, like this. With the cannas, I skip the medium, and just put them in garbage bags or bins that I leave open in the cellar.

DON’T DEADHEAD FADED perennials, biennials and annuals if you want self-sowns, or make sure to shake pods around before removing plant carcasses. Nicotiana, poppies, larkspur, clary sage and many others fall into this leave-alone group. So do plants with showy or bird-friendly seedheads, like grasses and coneflowers.

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.

houseplants

START A POT OF PAPERWHITES in potting soil or pebbles and water, and stagger forcing of another batch every couple of weeks for a winterlong display. Or instead force some hyacinth bulbs–super-easy says Tovah Martin, and not to be without.

CONTINUE RESTING AMARYLLIS BULBS in a dry, dark place where they will have no water at all for a couple of months total. I put mine in a little-used closet, and they will come out late this month, since they went in around mid- to late September. Pot up new ones now.

lawns

KEEP MOWING TILL THE GRASS stops growing, and make the last cut a short one.

TAKE THE MOWER IN for service after the final mowing, rather than in the spring rush, then store without gas in the tank. Run it dry. If it’s got too much fuel in it, add stabilizer from the hardware or auto supply store.

all the while: take notes, plan 2020 changes

DON’T RUSH AROUND mindlessly while you’re doing the November chores, even though it feels like time is running out. While I tease the garden apart, I’m making my next-year garden resolutions—remember this resolution list, made one recent fall? So helpful.

Plan in detail to extend and enrich your garden’s season. Reviewing some of my recent tip-filled interviews with landscape designers like these may help. Or maybe you want to concentrate on adding natives that particularly appeal to pollinators? That story. Or creating a garden that the birds love. Or cultivate a meadow?

Or getting more creative with your use of bulbs. Or start a rock garden.

Or reducing maintenance and shifting more toward “management” by designing new plantings with the inspiration of plant communities in mind, like this.

Whatever your goal, begin planning now.

need help in other regions?

AGAIN: I’m in the Northeast, in Zone 5B, though the how-to in this story will work most anywhere (if timed slightly differently). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.

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  1. Mo Godman says:

    Thank you! I enjoy your blog very much. I see from your comments that you have a pond. Do you have any tips for duckweed elimination? We live in the Pacific Northwest

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mo. My little garden pools are artificial, and not connected to any natural body of water, so I actually add duckweed and other floating ponds plants like Azolla (bought by mail order) each spring, to shade the water and prevent algae growth.

      Duckweed goes crazy when there is a lot of nutrients in the water, so one step to take (besides using a net to scoop off the excess and composting it) is to reduce the buildup of rotting organic material like fallen leaves in the bottom of your pond. I don’t know how big it is — mine is only 8 by 12 maybe.

      Follow the links on this page from Missouri Botanical to learn more about duckweed’s life cycle, what makes it go crazy, and what options for control you have.

      1. Eileen says:

        I was just wondering where you get your duckweed from. In the past I ordered giant duckweed from a vendor on Amazon located in Florida. This past year it wasn’t available.

        1. Lauren B. says:

          There is a place in New Jersey, Waterford Gardens, where they have all sorts of aquatic plants and everything else! I think they have mail order but I like going there. It is a lovely place to visit and the people who work there are very nice. There is another place, Garden State Koi, which is in Orange County, NY, which has a lot of stuff and great people who explain everything.

          1. margaret says:

            I buy my floating plants from them by mail, Lauren — they have been in the biz for many years and I like them, too.

  2. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    Thanks for these timely reminders, well organized and presented sensibly. With many years of gardening under my belt, perusing your lists becomes a pat-myself-on-the-back exercise as I have executed many of these chores spontaneously. Today was a Dahlia digging day, totally worth it. To see their flowers right up until frost and to be able to make stunning bouquets with such a wide range of colors is heavenly. So many gardening acquaintances rebuff my suggestions to invest time in Dahlias. It’s not at all difficult to excavate, rinse and dry the tubers. Then they can be “teased” apart and voila, multiplied! That is an especially gratifying November chore. Personally, I am ecstatic to bid farewell to a stinking hot 2016 growing season.

    1. Marcia A Chambers says:

      Did you let your dahlias rest after the first frost? To harden the skin on the tubers? We just got our first frost on 11-11. I’m in town and have lots of protection. I’m afraid they will mold if I don’t.

      Marcia

  3. Paula says:

    Hi Margaret
    Can you recommend a shredder? I would like to use my leaves but we have so many that they mat. Our mower isn’t really very good at mulching. Thanks

  4. Marissa says:

    Hi,

    New follower and I love how informative your blog is! Do you ever post on balcony gardening or know of any resources in Manhattan? I would love to grow food and to plant for birds and animals.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Marissa. That’s a great question and actually I’d like to tackle it on the next podcast Q&A, taping later this week with my friend Ken Druse. It’s not something I have done but Ken has, and he is more connected to the NYC community than I am these days so let me find out more. Stay tuned!

  5. Jennie says:

    I am interested in shredding my leaves, and I am wondering whether you are aware of a way to do it that doesn’t involve using electrical or gas power? I am committed to my rake and reel mower, and love manual gardening solutions!

      1. margaret says:

        If they are very dry (like some aged oak leaves) and not too thick in layers on the ground, it might work a little…but not like a power “mulching mower” or even a regular gar or electric mower’s blades. Never tried it with a reel mower but can’t hurt to experiment. But wet leaves of, say, maple — I doubt.

        1. IonaK says:

          I use my reel mower to chop up the leaves from my sycamore maples. It works very well as long as the leaves are dry but it does take quite a bit of time and patience as the mower will get jammed if the pile is too deep!

  6. Terri says:

    I had no idea about the fallen leaves harboring food sources for birds. So the other day when I swept the leaves from my front porch & ramp, I simply shoved them under the yew bush at the head of my driveway. The very next day I saw a cardinal poking around under there!

  7. Francesca says:

    This is such a handy blog post! November is still a great time of year to get out into the garden. The autumn colours are gorgeous and it’s not (always) too cold to bear. Thanks for sharing your chores list.

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