Margaret's garden clogs and trowelEVEN I—SHE OF THE MONTHLY CHORES LISTS—get overwhelmed at the thought of it: fall cleanup. As the month begins, I wait in a sort of suspended animation—for frost, and for leaf drop, the two accelerators that manufacture literal heaps of to-do’s faster than I can keep up. Top on our chores list this month: a 7-point program to help us all focus, along with some critical note-taking on the 2015 garden, as we’re teasing it apart.

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.

fall cleanup: the short version

  1. Leave especially ornamental or wildlife-friendly plants standing. Don’t act as if you’re vacuuming the living room; clean up beds tactically for maximum enjoyment by you and the birds.
  2. Remove sickly things first. Destroy the debris to minimize next year’s issues with squash bugs, cabbage worms, voles, and other pests and diseases. Like this.
  3. Stabilize woody plants: Identify any vulnerable limbs, removing broken or dead branches now to make sure winter weather doesn’t worsen things. Pruning 101.
  4. Gather leaves, and even start a leaves-only compost pile. I run them over with the mower to save space. Once they get crumbly, they make great mulch, or can be turned into beds to add organic matter.
  5. Late-season lawncare: Do your heavy raking now—not in spring—and overseed if there’s still time where you live. Here’s why that’s smart (hint: it helps prevent weeds later). Topdress with a half- or three-quarter-inch layer of compost onto thin or trampled areas.
  6. Protect or store weather-vulnerable pots: At a minimum, move pots under cover, where they will at least dry off (to minimize heave/thaw effects of weather). More tricks on weather-proofing and overwintering pots are in this story, with my friend Ken Druse.
  7. Weed! Besides cleaning up around diseased plants, this is a giant “must.” Even if you can’t weed, exactly, deadhead your weeds now and discard the seeds somewhere they cannot resprout. Fewer seeds now, fewer weeds next year.

about those weeds…

NOW IS THE TIME limit next year’s weeds. I love the expression: “One year seed, seven years weed.” Don’t let them set seed! Some species are actually easier to thwart in late summer and fall, like these (including knotweed, ragweed, Ailanthus, bindweed, curly dock and more).

Specific weed wisdom:

how’d you do? evaluate the garden

IN EARLY FALL, I try to do an informal survey of the garden—noting what worked and didn’t, and making a plan for possible changes. While I tease the garden apart this month, I’m making my next-year garden resolutions—remember my 2013 resolution list, made around this time that 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.

overwintering tender plants

BEAT THE FROST: I got some great advice for stashing tropicals from Dennis Schrader, a wholesale nurseryman who specializes in them.  (Also in the archives: overwintering rosemary, and storing figs, and a general page of plant-stashing tips.)

trees & shrubs

FALL IS A GREAT TIME for planting woody things. But 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.

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.

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.

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 show some browning or yellowing of needles this month and next. The oldest, innermost needles typically shed after a few years.

BESIDES REMOVING dead, damaged, diseased wood, ditto with suckers and water sprouts anytime. No hard pruning now, though; no fertilizer this late, either.

vegetables, fruit & herbs

PRESERVING the edible garden here runs through the last apple and green tomato I  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. Cookbook author Alana Chernila taught me to roast herbed tomatoes like this, then freeze them. Delicious. I freeze lots of herbs, too, in various forms.

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, or hurry and order a supply and plant this month (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. I mulch my garlic bed. Green growth may appear this fall; that’s normal.

DID YOU SOW COVER CROPS? Green manures help build soil tilth and fertility. There are varieties for each season and region.

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 a Reemay fabric “blanket” for super-early spring harvest.

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.

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 theoretically sow seeds of bush basil in a pot, too, but I have no luck with that; I rely on frozen herb concoctions.

flower garden

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.

DON’T HYDRANGEAS make you happy? (They still look good here, and have since high summer.) Maybe you want to add more? A primer on the best ones, and how to prune them (and when not to!).

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 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 containers.

compost heap & mulch

TOP UP MULCH in garden beds as they get cleaned up gradually. I order bulk mulch, which eliminates the waste of all those heavyweight plastic bags. Many local nurseries deliver. What good mulch is made of. I’ll recut the messiest of my bed edges, too, if there is time, to reduce weed creep.

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. Jacquie says:

    This year I tried for the first time a large container of perennials; a coral bell, fern and a lirope. I live in zone 5. Any suggestions of overwintering? From everything I have read, the container may not be insulated enough for sub zero temperatures. Should I move it to my garage or is there a way to insulate the container to keep the roots from freezing. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

  2. Michelle Robinson says:

    Now I feel overwhelmed after reading the October list! My arthritis has flared up in my fingers (I’m only 37) so it has been a challenge this year getting gardening at home done as I earn my living as a gardener.

    Thanks for your thorough list Margaret! I hope to visit your place one day.

    Michelle from zone 5b (close to Toronto)

  3. Bobbie blythe says:

    October in South Florida we can finally start thinking about going out to look at our gardens without being afraid of heatstroke and getting eaten alive by Mosquitos. The main chore in my borders and garden areas is massive pruning of summer overgrowth (from neglect!). Pink and purple Fire spike is towering 6 or 7 feet; gingers are turning brown and need cut down; they will go dormant for the winter, as will the caladiums that keep us cheered up in the summer with their colorful leaves. The heat-loving perennial salvias like Belize sage and tall yellow S. Madrensis are sprawling all over the place and need cut back.
    bald cypress trees are the first of our few deciduous trees here to notice the change in daylight hours and start to drop their “needles” and mat the ground. So even though we don’t have the massive leaf drop of other parts of the country, raking, raking raking is part of the chore list for those of us with cypress.
    Taking out the dead — summer plant casualties is an annual routine. Some plants just don’t make it through the heat and constant rain. Others, like the few roses that have survived the “black spot season” are putting on new growth and feeling better about the moderated temperatures.
    Not just yet, but soon we will be able to fill up pots and fill in borders of our gardens with annuals the rest of the country has enjoyed throughout the summer. Now WE can grow petunias, lobelia, alyssum, geraniums and all those plants that turn to mush when the heat hits.
    We have a 12-month growing season here, but some of us — cowardly gardeners — hide out indoors in the A/C for most of the summer and come alive again this time of year when we have four months of gardening paradise!

    1. margaret says:

      Love your recounting of the return to the outdoors this month, Bobbie. Thank you! Sounds like you are eager for the start of those four best months of the garden year.

  4. Terry Gardner says:

    It is hard to believe the garden season is over already. I have been taking out tomatoes, peppers and vining plants. Compost pile is growing. My garden did not do as good as in the past. We had enough for ourselves but did not give away anything. I always enjoy sharing my produce but just did not have the extra this year.
    To much rain early then a long dry spell later in the season.
    I did plant some spinach and lettuce in a raised bed and plan to build a cold frame over it before frost comes. I’ll see if that works out.

  5. joan taylor says:


    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joan. Best not to trap and then have to handle wildlife yourself if you are not trained in it, and even if you live trap him what then? In many states it is illegal to move the animal elsewhere (off your property) so I highly recommend looking in the Yellow Pages under wildlife control or nuisance wildlife control, or asking your local Cooperative Extension or garden center if they know of a licensed trapper who is legally permitted to do this work.

      Not cheap, but legal and safer. And you can learn in the process what’s really involved, and see if you can manage it yourself in the future. I do not like Have-a-Hart traps but prefer the professional types by Tomahawk, Safeguard or Comstock, such as are sold by Wildlife Control Supply. I have learned to trap myself and then pay the licensed handler to remove the animals since, again, it is not legal to do that myself.

  6. Loren Bologna says:

    I grew sun chokes for the first time this year in a raised bed in CT. They are still flowering, but stalks are heavy and falling over. Do you know when I should harvest them? Are they like potatoes?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Loren. The flavor improves with the cold, so wait till at least two weeks after the first serious freezer, but of course before the ground freezes up solid for winter. You can harvest gradually until the frozen soil prevents it…and you can mulch thickly over the spot to extend your harvest season a bit. They can be very deep (the tubers, I mean), so you will want to use a digging fork to loosen around the area carefully, then probably need to use your hands to find all of the tubers.

  7. Louise says:

    Hi Margaret,
    You made a great comment that we should spread compost in the late season lawn care. You mentioned to top dress with a half- or three-quarter-inch layer. How is this achieved? How do you spread it? I tried using my spreader to no avail. Can you explain in detail how a novice like me can do it. I just planted grass seed and my soil is VA clay, very poor soil.
    Louise zone 7
    To plant a garden is to believe in the future

  8. Rob says:

    You know, I wish I could just print this off and give it to several of my neighbors who absolutely do nothing for winter prep. And they wonder why their yard is a big mud pool in the spring!

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