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. My goals: To eliminate thick accumulation in the 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.

Speaking of rakes: Last year I lamented the apparent extinction of the high-quality bamboo leaf rake, and resorted to a new-fangled metal version. Turns out it’s really good; here’s that story (and that rake).

Whatever tool you choose, and however hard you work, there is no perfection possible with leaf removal, though; the moment you turn your back, the wind blows and more drop down or swirl and scuttle in. That’s why they call it fall, I guess.

Composting expertise, the top skill for any gardener, comes in especially handy now, so we don’t waste a single precious leaf. I’m still weeding (true!), mowing (until it stops growing, I’ll persist)—and also saving some seeds for use next year. 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.

easy compost, extra-early soil prep

PILE UP the compost-to-be 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.

LEAVES make great leaf mold when composted to add organic matter to beds. Maybe start a leaves-only compost pile, 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.

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

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, as author and longtime friend Ken Druse and I explained in this story and podcast. 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.

take notes, make 2016 changes

DON’T RUSH AROUND around mindlessly, 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 getting more creative with your use of bulbs.

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.

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? Put out the welcome mat for the birds, like this, 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 is a bulb, too, and I’m hoping yours is already planted (do it today, if not—ideally about a month before frost is in the ground). How to grow garlic.

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. I mulch my garlic bed. Green growth may appear this fall; that’s normal.

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 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.

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, 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.

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.

  1. Eileen says:

    I got a great tip from a local master gardener when I had difficulty with my compost breaking down last year. She said add worms, (available at any bait shop) and worked like a charm. Within a couple weeks my pile shrank to half it’s size! Feel free to pass it on and save some worms!

  2. Last year we lost one of our three year old rhododendrons. I’m near Boston, and it was a particularly hard winter. This year I am hoping to protect the shrubs on our property over the winter. I have seen recommendations for wind barriers, wrapping, and anti-desiccants. What do you recommend?

  3. Brian Reilly says:

    I have a question about my garlic. I live in NE Pennsylvania, and I planted my garlic a few weeks ago. All went well, however this year (for the first time) some of my garlic has already sprouted and is approx. 6-8 inches tall already. We’ve had a few weeks of exceptionally warm weather and I’m concerned about these plants. What will happen when it gets cold? Will I loose these plants?

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank You

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