October Chore List: Putting the Garden to Bed

October is here. Pumpkin spice and all things nice. We're loving these sweatshirt mornings and wishing for rain. It's time for fall clean-up or putting the garden to bed, which is where we gardener's are headed soon afterward.

There's much to do, so let's get started. (Here's the downloadable pdf if you need a printout.)

There are so many daffodils (or Narcissus) that you can enjoy their blooms from February into April. Multiple colors, mulitple blooms on one stem, and one that even looks like scrambled eggs. (Can you guess which one?)

Buy Bulbs, Plant Bulbs

1.  Buy bulbs, plant bulbs. You can plant bulbs now through November, as long as the soil is workable, but buy them now. We sell out fast. Store them in a cool, dry and somewhat dark place until ready for planting. The chilling times for different bulbs are listed below. For a how-to on forcing bulbs, click here. For a pdf on forcing bulbs, click here.

Chilling and Blooming Times For Bulbs

Note: Amaryllis and Paperwhites do not require a chilling period, just pot them up and look for blooms 4+ weeks later.

  • Daffodils: 12-15 weeks of chilling; 2-3 weeks to bloom after chilling.
  • Tulips: 10-16 weeks of chilling; 2-3 weeks to bloom after chilling.
  • Crocus: 8-15 weeks of chilling; 2-3 weeks to bloom after chilling.
  • Grape hyacinth: 8-15 weeks of chilling; 2-3 weeks to bloom after chilling.
  • Iris reticulata: 13-15 weeks of chilling; 2-3 weeks to bloom after chilling.
  • Snowdrop (Galanthus): 15 weeks of chilling; 2 weeks to bloom after chilling.
  • Hyacinth: 12-15 weeks of chilling; 2-3 weeks to bloom after chilling.

Weed, Weed, Weed

2.  Weed, Weed, Weed. This chore always makes the list. Consider it a given. Many weeds are going to seed now and ousting them before that happens is crucial. If time is an issue, try to remove the seed heads with a sharp pair of dead headers, eliminating seed for next year's weeds. Check out the Weed Science Society of America's online site and Rutger's Weed Gallery. Both great resources for learning about weeds, especially weed identification.

Clean up Perennials and Sickly Plants

3. Clean up sickly plants and perennials that are beginning to die back. Perennials are rarely evergreen (there are exceptions), and it is the root that is perennial, not the shoots. Cut perennials completely back as they begin to yellow. You'll see shoots emerge next spring. 

Rake up sickly plant material and dispose of it. Unhealthy plant material is harboring ground for next season's diseases and pests. We're cleaning up now for healthier plants next year. Don't leave debris around the plants, but rake it away and dispose.  

Gather the Leaves

4. Gather the leaves. When the leaves start falling, don't give them to your municipality. Instead, gather them up and work them into the garden beds. Leaves contain 2x the mineral content of manure, are organic roughage--adding them to the soil improves drainage and aeration--and they serve as food for beneficial microbes. They're also good food for compost. Leaving them on the grass all winter kills the grass, and it leaches the good stuff out of leaves. Instead, rake, and put your natural resources to work for you in your garden.

You have a couple of options.

  • Rake into a pile, and run the lawn mower over them a few times--the inexpensive way--or purchase a leaf shredder. After shredding, mulch the garden beds with the leaves. Raking the leaves directly onto the beds without shredding takes much longer for leaves to break down and some leaves mat together not allowing air circulation and water to get through. 
  • Make a leaf mold by putting leaves into a leaf bag, dousing the leaves with water and punching a few holes in the bag. The leaves break down to nice, crumbly, organic food for your soil. For more information on how to use your leaves and make leaf mold, click here

Witchhazel, a small shrub or tree, is beautiful in fall and it blooms in early winter. If you're looking at your garden and notice it's missing fall color, but don't have room for a big sugar maple, try a witch hazel. They're a good fit for a small landscape.

Not all fall color comes from trees or shrubs. This is ostrich fern glowing in the late afternoon. Amsonia hubrichtii is another great perennial for fall color (and spring bloom). 

Clean Up the Vegetable Garden

5. The vegetable garden. Remove all spent and diseased plant material from the garden. Tomatoes that suffered tomato blight should be pulled up, bagged up and thrown away. Consider planting a cover crop for winter. Use your leaves in the vegetable beds, too. Improving the soil is always the goal for any gardener. Harvest all your herbs and late summer crops before a freeze gets them and remember that now is a good time to plant garlic.

Skip the Pruning

6. Forget the pruning, except lightly. Fall is not the time to prune except lightly. Pruning pushes out new growth which doesn't have time to harden off, and can lead to winter dieback. But do prune out the dead/diseased/dying/damaged wood (again perfect harboring places for pests and diseases), or anything that needs stabilizing (i.e., long branches that could get whipped around in the winter wind). For pruning information and when to prune, click here.

Limelight hydrangeas and Virginia sweetspire make a great fall color combination.

7. Bring the tropicals indoors. Terri Joiner, our tropicals buyer, explains that tropicals won't show immediate damage unless exposed to frost or freeze. However, extended exposure to temperatures in the 40's can lower their resistance to pest and disease. Have them acclimated to indoors by the time we're experiencing consistent nighttime temperatures in the upper 40's. And since we are moving indoors soon, don't forget, many of our indoor plants help purify household toxins

A Final Review

8. Gardener Review: How did you do? What worked, what didn't? Were some things fabulous but impractical? What about those shade trees you planted years ago that are finally shading the house, and maybe the full sun perennial beds? Perhaps winter is the time for a shade garden plan? Gardens are not static. They're organic, evolving spaces, which is what keeps us gardeners intrigued. So make plans for next year.

Got blank spots? Fall is a great time to plant. Check out this link with instructions for planting.  

Or maybe you'd like to garden for the birds

Or have a pollinator garden?

Or have a year round garden?

Or is it time for a patio?

Last Minute Items

  • Clean and store necessary outdoor containers. Here's the skinny on that. If you're still feeling creative and want to do some winter container gardening, here are some tips for that.
  • Clean out bird feeders and bird houses. Use a little soap and warm water and rinse well, allowing feeders to completely dry. It will help reduce potential diseases passed between birds.
  • Clean, sharpen and store tools. (Next week's blog topic)

Cinthia Milner is the garden coach, blog writer and outside sales staff at BB Barns Garden Center.

BB Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.