the october garden chores: 2013

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelI GOT FAKED OUT by early bouts of cold, but the cusp of fall is always that way: fickle, and a bit of a tease. In the face of high-30s nights last month, I stashed tender tropicals when perhaps I could have waited, but better safe than sorry, right? Now if I can just get the rest of the harvest put up before the serious cleanup begins—all part of October’s mad juggling act that makes it rival spring as the year’s busiest garden month here in Zone 5B.

In September’s chores I suggested a survey of the garden—noting what worked and didn’t, and making a plan for possible changes. While I tease the garden apart, I’m making my next-year garden resolutions—remember my 2013 resolution list, made around this time? So helpful.

Are you ready for “feeder season”? Put out the welcome mat for the birds, like this.

Despite those nippy nights, September came and went again this year without a frost, but I’m unlikely to escape another month. (In 2011 it snowed 18 inches one October night, so I’m on alert!) Wherever you are, it’s probably tick, tick, tick, so first things first:

overwintering tender plants

I GOT SOME GREAT ADVICE for stashing tropicals from Dennis Schrader, a wholesale nurseryman who specializes in them.  (Also in the A Way to Garden archives: overwintering rosemary, and storing figs, and a general page of plant-stashing tips.)

the mad food stash continues

PRESERVING the edible garden here runs through the last apple and green tomato I can manage to squeeze into my pantry or freezer in the form of something delicious and durable. Such as applesauce, or apple butter, easy vegetable and other soups, or jam-like tomatillo salsa, or skins-on easy tomato sauce to freeze. I freeze lots of herbs, too, in various forms.

the big cleanup begins

START YOUR CLEANUP with an eye to prevention–of pests, weeds, and general chaos next year. In case weather shuts you down early, make sure you clean up first around things that showed signs of disease, weed or insect infestation:

  • WEED WAR! Minimize weed woes for next year. Some weeds are actually easier to thwart in late summer and fall, like these.
  • PEST PROBLEMS? Deer, voles, cabbage worms, squash bugs and other garden pests can be limited with tactics like this.
  • THE WAY WE MOW—in fall, and throughout the lawn’s active growing season—and when we do our raking up of debris can really affect how many lawn weeds we have, particularly opportunists like crabgrass. Repair compaction, minimize weeds and overseed now.

DON’T WASTE FALLING LEAVES! Leaves are precious, and make great leaf mold to turn into beds and improve soil, or use as mulch, once composted. Maybe start a leaves-only compost pile this year? Running over dry leaves (and other dry non-woody material) with the mower to shred will reduce the area needed for such piles.

DON’T RUSH IT, though. If a perennial has nice fall color or seedheads, let it stand for you and the birds to enjoy, just a little longer. (And think about adding more fall- and winter-interest things to your landscape; there’s still time for planting this month.)

trees & shrubs

CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents. Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round.

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).

SCOUTING FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE begins later this month, when leaves fall and their egg cases are easier to see. Remove egg cases by pruning off affected wood, between then and April-ish, to reduce larvae and beetle issues in the coming 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.

BE SURE TO WATER trees now through hard frost if conditions are dry, so that they enter dormancy well-hydrated. Evergreens (needled ones and broadleaf types like rhododendron, too) are particularly vulnerable to desiccation and winterburn.

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.

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; no fertilizer this late, either.

vegetables, fruit & herbs

AGAIN: TIME TO COOK UP and stash the last bits from the vegetable garden, like this, checking on the kettles between rounds of raking and cutbacks outdoors.

TOMATOES NOT RIPE? How to coax them to redness, maybe (or ways to use them green!).

I LEAVE MY POTATOES in the ground as long as I can, but any day now they really want a proper storage place (humidity is the key). All about storing dug potatoes. Plus: How to store all your vegetables so they last.

REPLANT THE BIGGEST CLOVES from your best heads of harvested garlic for best yield, or hurry and order a supply and plant now (about a month before frost is in the ground). 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. Green growth will happen this fall, which is great; don’t panic. It’s a hardy thing.

DID YOU SOW COVER CROPS? Green manures help build soil tilth and fertility. There are varieties for each season and region; I often use winter rye and medium red clover through mid-fall here.

PREPARE A SEEDBED NOW for peas and spinach for next spring, to get a headstart on such early crops. Spinach can even be sown now, even in the north, and covered with fabric for super-early spring harvest; not the peas, of course.

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. Determined types with really sunny windowsills can sow seeds of bush basil in a pot, too. As I said, I rely on frozen herb concoctions instead.

IF NEXT YEAR’S GARDEN plans include a patch of strawberries or asparagus or cane fruits like raspberries, do the tilling and soil preparation now so the bare-root plants ordered over the winter can be planted extra early come spring.

flower garden

AGAIN: PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION to areas to cleanup around peonies, roses, bearded iris and other flowers that are prone to fungal diseases; don’t leave any debris in place.

CANNAS, DAHLIAS AND OTHER tender bulb-like things including elephant ears need to be dug carefully for indoor storage. There are many methods, but the basics: Once frost blackens the foliage, cut back the 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 unheated basement or crawl space around 40-50 degrees, in boxes or pots filled with bark chips or peat moss.

DON’T COMPLETELY DEADHEAD FADED perennials, biennials and annuals if you want to collect seed (non-hybrids only) or wish to let them self-sow for next year’s show. Nicotiana, poppies, larkspur, clary sage, angelica and many others fall into this leave-alone group.

LAST CALL FOR BULB ORDERS, and plant as they arrive (lilies most urgently—I love the martagon types). How I think when I’m ordering flower bulbs (seven tips). And I especially think about drifts, not onesies and threesies.

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 FIRST POT of paperwhites (or a cocktail shaker full, tee hee), and stagger forcing more every couple of weeks for a continuing winterlong indoor display.

REST AMARYLLIS BULBS by putting them in a dry, dark place where they will have no water at all for a couple of months. In September, I put mine in a little-used closet; do it now if you haven’t. An unusual way to grow these familiar bulbs.

IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED urgent repotting, do it before they come inside (less messy than in the house!). Ideally, I do this in spring just as they go out, but if someone’s in need, do now. 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.

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. What good mulch is made of. Top up mulch in all garden beds as they get cleaned up gradually in fall. I’ll recut the messiest of my bed edges, too, if there is time.

(Note on using this list: All chores are based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.)

  1. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    Re: storing tender bulbs….. My Colocasia ‘Black Magic’ has yet to make a tuber. I have had it for many years. Each time I dump out the pot and look at the roots, making some divisions to share, there is never a bulb there, just a tangle of roots coming off what could barely be called a crown. It seems to not need dormancy like my green elephant ears which make enormous tubers. The first year, thinking I had to store ‘Black Magic’ like a Dahlia or Calla, I placed the rinsed off tangle of roots in a bag for winter storage and later of course there was nothing to retrieve. I was dubious placing it in the bag from the outset. I had to buy it again the next season. I now keep a full sized ‘Black Magic’ Elephant Ear in my warm boiler room in winter, under grow lights, along with Passiflora (severe haircut first) and freshly potted cuttings of Coleus and Sweet Potato Vines. It’s a favorite spot to fondle the fronds when the snow is flying outside.

  2. Lisa says:

    With all the garden clean-up I have here in zone 4, I used to go nuts and rip out all the tattered looking self-sowers in my garden. This year I noticed what a great source of nectar and pollen they were for all the insects and the late hummingbirds migrating through. I decided it was more important to leave the garden unkempt a little longer and leave this source of much needed food for them.

  3. Linda Marie-Boise,ID Zone 6 says:

    Thank you! I am so happy to have found you! Being a student of gardening, I need all the suggestions, organizing skills and a great schedule. Thank you, LindaMarie

  4. Vicki says:

    Wow. This is just the information I need even though we’re located in a warmer clime and still longing for cool nights. I’m hanging on to this!
    No frost for us until the first week of November. But in another month the strangers will start their trip south and birdwatching will be at its best. Bring on the birdfood! Love the two weeks when the Pelicans arrive at the lake. I always look forward to watching their graceful spiral landings and remind the kids to remember to look up. Good advice for more than birdwatching.

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to see you, Vicki. Pelicans! Lucky you. No frost here yet but it could be any time (though the last week has been summery again. Odd!)

  5. Jean | DelightfulRepast.com says:

    2013 has turned out to be a completely non-gardening year for me, but regular visits to your site (it’s listed on my Sites I Visit page!) have helped me still “feel” like a gardener! Things are going to change around here in 214!

  6. Vicky says:

    I was sick with weird food allergies for the past 3-4 months so the volunteers took over the veg garden. Got over that then caught the same crud I had 4 months ago and it hangs on for a long while. My neighbor gave me his old greenhouse which I want to set up but as it always goes there is 40 other things that need to be done just to do it. My fall chores are totally redoing the back yard just to set up the greenhouse. The weather has been nasty, high winds chilly and once in awhile a nice day. The nice days are usually when I have to work inside for other people to get paid. I dug up the strawberries in the back yard veg garden a few years ago but they keep coming back. They took over the back yard along with other volunteers like lavender, garlic chives, chamomile, lemon balm, oregano, St. John’s Wort, borage and a bad clover looking thing and low spreading weed with millions of seeds. I would have the greenhouse set up already but I’m afraid if I put it too close to the garage that it will snow and the snow will fall off the garage and crush my greenhouse. So I have to move the fakey raised beds and all that volunteered in them. The wood is rotting anyway so it’s time to redo along with moving the plastic planter boxes from the driveway that are stacked on cinder blocks like stairs. I have to hand water them and if I move them to the back yard they can get watered by the system. They are going to the shaded area of the 6′ fence that is growing moss! Can’t believe we have moss in the irrigated dessert area of WA state. It is the weird looking on that blooms like mini palm trees and an other one that looks like circles. Along with those chores I also have the herb garden on the sunny side small strip of the house and the front yard that the ornamental grasses and numerous other herbs and things taking over. I used to have cute little paths but they are hiding under it all. The work never end in the gardens.

  7. Hi Margaret,
    I started following your radio show and blog this year. This is my first year gardening and it has been such a wonderful experience. Thank you for all the great information and inspiration you share! Can you give more details about how to implement a hardware cloth collar? We have several young fruit trees that I want to protect especially as the weather cools off. I’m in NY state, further south than you in zone 7a. Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sarah. Thanks for the kind words. Here’s some help in a link on the hardware-cloth collars, which must be 1/2 inch mesh or finer, 18 inches tall, and into the soil an inch deep.

  8. Rosemary says:


    My mother bless her, told me to leave the bulbs in the ground until the flowers have stopped flowering and the leaves go from green to brown, although I like my bulbs to clump so I only divide them every two years.

    Beautiful blossoms on both my Apple trees which I am really pleased about and my lemon and banana trees both have more leaves. I have planted nearly all my bulbs but get the irises for next years plating as I want to get some more old fashioned heritage types.

    I’m going out later tonight to see who is eating my red nasturtiums as I noticed when I was weeding someone has been have a good munch on them but when I turned the leaves over no larvae or worms around. mmmm

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