the september garden chores: 2013

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelI DARE YOU: DO A SURVEY of your garden, right this minute. Go outside with a clipboard, and make a headcount of what’s still queued up and waiting to show off (compared to what’s spent and done for the year).  Then commit to lengthening the still-to-go list with some well-planned September planting. That’s how this year’s September garden chores begin: with analysis, so you can do enhancements–and yes, I know: we also have harvests to process, weeds to outsmart, lawns to renovate, and more. But let’s not skip this primetime strategic opportunity to not just analyze, but also act to improve the year-round view out the window by planting and transplanting this month.

Here in Zone 5B, where frost can come in late September or early October, you’d think I’d be feeling more fatalistic—that the season’s “end” was in sight.

Instead I have gradually loaded my garden with things that flower or fruit or form great seedpods late, or take on fall foliage colors, or with good offseason structure or bark.  On the other end of the calendar, I’ve worked hard to layer in extra-early performers. In my region that means things that start up in March, as snow melts–such as minor bulbs or early perennials like hellebores. A 365-day garden, remember?

Topic by topic, now, the rest of the September garden chores:

weed and pest control and prevention

WEED WAR! Now is the time to minimize weed woes for next year. Some weeds are actually easier to thwart in late summer and fall, like these.

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.


PEST PROBLEMS? When you start your fall cleanup, do so with pest control in mind, too. Deer, voles, cabbage worms, squash bugs and other garden pests can be limited with tactics like this.

vegetable garden

SAVE SEED: The time is now for saving tomato seed (and other “wet” seeds such as peppers, squash, cucumber, melon). How to save tomato seed.

SEND IN SOIL SAMPLES for testing if you’re seeing poor results in some beds. Contact your local cooperative extension on how to sample.

MY FALL VEGETABLE GARDEN PLANS were covered in this archive story and podcast. Still ahead to plant here: more salad, garlic (next month) and spinach. How you can plan for an extended harvest in every region.

KEEP ASPARAGUS well weeded and watered, too. Let asparagus ferns grow till hard frost, when they are fully browned—or even leave them up till spring cleanup.

GARLIC should be curing in an airy, sheltered place. Read all about growing garlic, and storing your harvest–and order bulbs now for October-ish planting.

TOMATO, CUKE OR SQUASH TROUBLES? Tomatoes have a range of possible problems, but who could go without them? If your issue is cucumbers or summer squash, start here. Peppers can be tricky in some seasons; pepper tips and recipes and storage tips.

AS AREAS COME EMPTY from harvest, build vegetable-garden soil by sowing cover crops. These “green manures” will be turned under to improve soil tilth and fertility. Don’t sow in areas reserved for fall-planted garlic, or very early spring crops.

I FREEZE MANY HERBS, including parsley, rosemary and chives, or make them into pestos to freeze as well. Here’s how.  If it’s vegetables you are storing, start here. Lots more harvest-stashing recipe ideas, from pickles to frozen peaches.

flower garden

DON’T DEADHEAD FADED perennials, biennials and annuals if you want to collect seed (non-hybrids only) or let some self-sow. Nicotiana, annual poppies, larkspur, clary sage and many others fall into this leave-alone group. So do plants with showy or bird-friendly seedheads, like coneflowers, some sedums, clematis and grasses.

DAYLILIES can be dug and divided as they complete bloom, right into fall, if needed.

PEONIES are best divided and transplanted in late August through September, if they need it. Remember with these fussy guys that “eyes” must not be buried more than an inch or two beneath the soil surface.

MANY POPULAR ANNUALS can be overwintered as rooted cuttings rather than nursing along leggy older specimens. Geraniums, coleus, wax begonias, even impatiens (to name just a few common ones), if grown in good light indoors and kept pinched and bushy, will yield another generation of cuttings for next spring’s transplants. Expend this effort and space on an unusual form of something, not the garden variety.

DID YOU HAVE IMPATIENS problems? Learn about downy mildew and plan to avoid it next year.

IF TUBEROUS BEGONIAS like ‘Bonfire’ or ‘Bellfire’ are starting to go slack, let them dry off and rest early, or they will rot. Take your cue from the plants!

ORDER BULBS promptly, and plant as they arrive (lilies most urgently). Top 7 tips on shopping smart for flower bulbs.  Many bulb-growing questions are answered in my Bulb FAQ.

PREPARE NEW beds for fall planting by smothering grass or weeds with layers of recycled corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, then put mulch on top.

RE-EDGE BEDS to make a clean line and define them. Don’t let them get overrun just because summer’s wound down. A clean edge makes a big difference.

trees and shrubs

IF YOU’RE ON THE DRY SIDE, be sure to water trees and shrubs through hard frost, so that they enter dormancy well-hydrated. Evergreens (needled ones and broadleaf types like rhododendron, too) are particularly vulnerable to desiccation and winterburn otherwise.

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; too late to risk encouraging regrowth. No fertilizer this late in the season, either.


REST AMARYLLIS BULBS by putting them in a dry, dark place where they will have no water at all for a couple of months. I put mine in a little-used closet.

IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED repotting, do it before they come inside later this month (less messy than in the house!). 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.


MID-AUGUST TO MID-SEPTEMBER is prime lawn-renovation and planting time in the North. Have you reseeded yet? Paul Tukey at SafeLawns [dot] org shares some overseeding how-to’s.

DON’T BAG OR RAKE clippings; let them lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil, right through the last mowing in late autumn. An exception: If you have crabgrass, and it’s setting seed.

compost heap and mulch

I USE BULK MULCH, which is cheaper than the packaged kind and also eliminates the waste of all those heavyweight plastic bags. Many local nurseries deliver. Top up mulch in all garden beds as they get cleaned up gradually. What good mulch is made of.

DON’T LET THE HEAP dry out completely, or it will not “cook.” Turning it to aerate will also hasten decomposition, but things will rot eventually even if not turned. I extract more finished material and screen it each fall, to work into the gardens (and make more room for incoming fresh debris).

(On using this list in your garden: The monthly A Way to Garden chores are based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.)

Categorieschores by month
  1. Ann says:

    It was 106 today so I’ll delay observing the garden for a week or two. Thanks for adding the link to weeds. I can at least list what I need to take care of in the lawn.

  2. Barb says:

    I was interested in the section on saving tomato seeds because my neighbor gave me some heirloom plants that produced delicious “chocolate cherry” tomatoes. I was thinking of saving the seeds until the plants started to die. While they were good producers I don’t want the disease in my garden. From what I’ve read it appears they came with a case of blight. Now I am wondering if it is safe to save the seeds? She gave me these as plants so it may have been in her soil as I’ve read it is a soil born disease. I would love to grow these again, but not at the cost of losing all my plants. Save the seed or not?

  3. Tracy says:

    The season is nearing its end and I have failed to grow Nicotiana from seed. I have been so impressed by the random plants in your garden (I’ve visited twice) and try as I have, I could not get one seed to sprout. I ordered seeds from a producer per your recommendation. What do you suppose that I have done wrong? Are they especially picky about growing conditions?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tracy. When did you sow them? (The plants sort of sow themselves in fall, or in winter if you leave them standing and some seed are still in the seedheads.) They don’t germinate right away (and in fact are a little late here) so I have to be REALLY careful not to clean up the areas where the seeds will eventually sprout, or I will lose most of my crop. I don’t rake etc. in those spots — I watch and wait. The seeds need light to germinate, so I press them into the soil but don’t cover them. They also need to stay moist — which nature takes care of if I do it outdoors in fall or late winter. I have done them in the house under lights, which I find harder (the seeds are tiny and the seedlings are so little, too. and hard to tease apart). But technically of course you can do it if you are careful not to sow too many in a since cell of a cellpack.

      1. Tracy says:

        I sowed them in late spring and probably covered them with too much soil. I still have seeds left and will try again this fall.

  4. Rosemary says:

    My daffodils have been absolutely splendid and I have planted flowers which have nitrogen in them for the lemon tree put more compost on the garden. Got all my newspapers out and laid on the garden it rained three days in a row so they are lovely and damp and placed some small rocks on them
    Swept the path this morning and noticed a few more forget-me-nots and calendulas, sweet peas coming along nicely.
    Fig tree has 2 new leaves, although on the nature strip yesterday someone or some cat knocked the fragile stem but I will leave it there and ask my two cats to stay away.

    Reading your wonderful Parables book, I love the feel of the cover, it feels like felt!

    I turned my solar panel switch on yesterday so now I’m saving electricity.

    met a lovely lady Lucy who has turned her backyard into an organic garden and I bought two beautiful trees from her which her husband will deliver on Sunday, Lucy suggests I keep them in pots but I am thinking the ground would be better just got to find a space for them!!

    keep up your excellent work, love getting your emails…

  5. Cene says:

    Read the chore list & nearly had an anxiety attack ! Actually- our first frost isn’t until Dec usually. Will be mowing the lawn well into November. As for saving tomato seeds: I compost the remains and had tomatoes this year in every single bed I amended – it was crazy ! Those were the best tomatoes this year due to the abundance of rain – that I cannot bemoan after last years’ 4 days TOTAL of rain. I’ll get right on that bed edging ! Wink Wink ! Love the blog ! Thanks for keeping us on our toes !

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