NATIONAL 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 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 reduce thick accumulation in some portions of the formal beds and borders (an invitation to voles and mice in winter, and also an obstacle next spring to early emerging plants, like small bulbs). With rake or mulching mower, I also work to prevent matted buildup of leaves on the lawn, or move it aside onto less formal beds where possible. Any leaves that cannot be left somewhere to lie as all-important leaf litter get recycled into mulch and 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. I’m creating more “leave the leaves” zones at the edges of my yard, especially under native trees. The ecology of leaf litter is surprising; a lot of species of Lepidopterans leave their larvae and eggs on tree leaves of their host species in the fall months, for instance, so that come spring the emergent insects will still be near their host tree.
Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware taught me more detail on that in fall 2020–about how to handle leaves during cleanup, and why. We revisited the subject when we talked specifically about the power of oaks in a more recent chat. Uli Lorimer of Native Plant Trust walked me through his approach in fall 2022. And native bee expert Heather Holm explained how and when to cut back garden plants that offer nesting and overwintering places for those critical insects. Don’t miss those four episodes of the podcast, with Doug and Uli and with Heather, or read their transcripts. An older interview with Rhiannon Crain of The Habitat Network, a former joint project of Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy, also encourages this kind of approach.
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 it looks (but doesn’t sound) tempting.
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 really do need to 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.
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. Plus: a 2020 story on bird-feeding I did for “The New York Times.”
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 juncos, titmice, chickadees, mourning doves, white-throated sparrows and others who winter 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).
SEEDS OF NATIVE MEADOW PLANTS are best winter-sown outdoors in a special but simple animal-proof setup. Heather McCargo of wild Seed Project in Maine showed me how.
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 by committing to an all-season approach to weed control, including now. Some weeds are actually easier to thwart in late summer and fall, 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?
PROTECT VULNERABLE ROSES in the coldest zones 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, wait a week, then 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.
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.
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 if it’s a gas model, 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 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.