Leaves are falling, asters and mums are blooming, and gardens are bursting with pumpkins and winter squash. The temptation is there to just sit back and admire the colorful autumn display, but there are many garden chores that need to be done during the pleasant October days. It's time to plant new shrubs and spring bulbs, harvest fruit and vegetables, and get the garden ready for the colder months ahead.
Shrubs and Trees
- Complete planting and transplanting broad-leaved and needle-leaved evergreens before October 15, but wait until after leaves have fallen to transplant deciduous trees.
- Fall color often can be enjoyed for a much longer time than a plant's flowers in the spring. When selecting new trees and shrubs for landscape use, consider their fall features and color. Trees that turn red in the fall include dogwood, red maple, sweet gum, and red or scarlet oak. Shrubs with red fall foliage include viburnum, winged euonymus, Henry's Garnet Itea, and barberry. With the right choice of shade tree you can light up the fall in your garden!
- Light pruning of both needle and broadleaf evergreens is recommended in late fall to encourage a strong framework to help the plant overcome any snow damage. But do not prune azaleas, rhododendrons and other spring flowering shrubs because they have already set their buds for next year's blooms.
- Deciduous trees and shrubs should not be pruned at this time. Although they may appear dormant as leaves turn color and drop, their roots — 80 percent of which are within the top foot of soil — are still full of life. But continue to remove damaged or diseased branches to allow the plant to use its energy to prepare for dormancy rather than healing.
- October is a good time for fertilizing shade trees. But be careful not to over fertilize! If the tree has already been fertilized this year, wait a season or two before doing it again. Methods include surface application, use of tree spikes, injection into the soil of liquid materials, and making many small holes and adding granular fertilizer to them. Let the experts at Reds help you decide which method is best for your particular application.
- If you plan to have a live Christmas tree this year, begin preparations now. Decide where you want to transplant the tree after the holidays, keeping in mind your overall landscape scheme. Then, before the ground freezes, dig the transplant hole, making it at least twice the spread of the roots and the same depth as the root ball of the tree you plan to plant. Fill with straw or loose leaves. Cover with a board to prevent accidents. Work compost and fertilizer into the backfill soil.
- Towards the end of the month, give your evergreens one last good soaking. If they go into the winter well watered, they'll be better prepared to combat drying winter winds when the ground is frozen.
- If you didn't get to it in September, apply winterizer fertilizer to your lawn to promote root growth and strengthen your lawn to better endure winter.
- Mow the lawn right up to the end of the growing season to prevent matting, which will damage turf. Once grasses have stopped growing, the final mowing should be made with a height in the 2 - 2½" range. Cutting the grass shorter means there won't be as much foliage to get diseased through winter.
- Rake leaves frequently so they don't smother the grass or contribute to next spring's snow mold disease; use healthy leaves as mulch or compost them.
Perennials, Annuals, and Bulbs
- Early October is a good time to plant spring-blooming bulbs so they will establish roots before the first hard frost. Design your garden to display clumps of color (6 or more bulbs per clump) with the taller varieties standing in back of smaller ones. Think about planting bulbs that bloom at different times so you will have continuous color in the garden next spring.
- Just as you finish setting out your spring-blooming bulbs, it will be time to think about digging and storing the tender bulbs, corms, and roots (cannas, dahlias, gladiolus, and tuberous begonias) that you planted in the spring. Once the first frost has discolored the foliage, dig out the bulbs, clean off the excess soil, and store them in a box of sawdust, peat moss, or vermiculite in a cool dry place until spring.
- Remulch landscape beds. Perennials can be cut back and annuals can be removed to reduce the number of obstacles to work around.
- Bare-root roses establish well if planted in early October.
- Bring geraniums indoors in mid-October. Prune this year's stem back to three buds from where it grew out from last year's growth, repot (be sure to check the leaves and root ball for insect pests), and place the plants in a cool, well-lit room for the winter.
- Watch your thermometer on colder nights. A windless, cold, clear night usually means a killing frost, but you can keep your chrysanthemums and asters blooming for a while longer if you provide a little frost protection for them. A small, simple frame covered with cheesecloth or an old bed sheet placed over your plants on frosty nights can add weeks more of garden blooms. Don't forget to remove the cover as soon as the frost danger has passed!
- Christmas cacti need special care now to get its beautiful flowers this December. Buds will form at 50–60°F. or if the plant is exposed to at least 13 hours of complete darkness each night.
Fruits and Vegetables
- It's time to harvest winter squash and pumpkins! Leave them on the vine until the skins are hardened and frost has killed the vines. Handle carefully (cuts and bruises in the rind allow decay organisms to get in) and store in a single layer at a temperature of about 60°F. in a spot with low humidity. If you didn't grow pumpkins in your garden this year, stop by Reds to pick up a few for Halloween jack-o-lanterns.
- Dig up herbs, repot in clay pots using high quality potting soil that will allow good drainage, and bring them indoors to a south-facing window that receives 5 hours of direct sunlight for use in the kitchen all winter.
- Pick the largest, almost ripe green tomatoes, just before a frost. Put them in a brown paper (not plastic) bag with some apples and they will ripen as sweet as if on the vine.
- After a light frost, dig sweet potatoes and cure them for two weeks in a warm location. Then store in a cool, dry location for longer keeping.
- Plowing and incorporating organic matter in the fall avoids the rush of garden activities and waterlogged soil in spring. Fall-prepared soils also tend to warm faster and allow earlier planting in spring.
- Gourds are a nice addition to centerpieces for the upcoming holidays. Harvest gourds when the stem dries but before the first frost. Wash in a dilute bleach solution, gently dry with a cloth then place gourds in a warm, well-ventilated area, but not in direct sunlight, which fades their colors. Curing takes one to six months, depending on the type of gourd. The outer skin hardens in a week or two, but it takes at least a month for the inside to dry. Poking a small nail-hole in the blossom-end of the gourd speeds the process. When you can shake the gourd and hear the seeds rattling, it is cured and ready for a coat of furniture wax, paint, or varnish.