Gardens – There’s plenty to do in this least verdant of seasons

Though putting a garden to bed should actually begin in August, British garden writer Monty Don says that "...October is my gardening new year...Time to take stock, plan, prepare, and start again." — Photo by Susan Safford

Putting the garden to bed is actually a process that tugs in opposing directions. Sanitation is of great importance in vegetable gardens for disease and pest control. Wildlife support is the province of ornamental gardens. Many flower stalks are nowadays left for their seed value for birds (and other wildlife), to which gardeners owe a standing debt of gratitude for insect control. Whether you are a neat-freak or wildlife lover, it is your garden and you decide.

Cutdowns, starting with plants whose foliage ripens earliest

Putting the garden to bed actually starts in August when some annuals will be seen to have gone by and may be pulled to make room for other seasonal plant material. Debris removal and cutdowns are on-going: plants with foliage that yellows early or is diseased, for example, slug-damaged hostas; plants such as daylilies that will regenerate fresh basal leaves; clearing fallen leaves.

By mid- to late October

As the British garden writer Monty Don says of this season: “The beginning of October is my gardening new year…. Time to take stock, plan, prepare, and start again.” How you prepare now lays the foundation for success next year.

Much of the cutdowns have been done. Leave woody sub-shrubs, such as lavender, caryopteris, and perovskia, alone: cut them back in spring.

Eliminate unwanted plants, or transplant; divide overgrown perennials; find improved locations for plants that are too big or not doing well. Division is often the difference between, for instance, a Siberian iris loaded with bloom and one with scarcely any. This time of year normally you can move plants around with the expectation of autumn rains to keep them watered. Give beds a final weeding, and then top-dress with low-number soil food and layer over with compost or mulch.

Tuberous begonias and pelargoniums (geraniums) may be removed from pots and stored dry in a cool dark cellar. They are revived in spring by being brought into the light and repotted in new soil. Alternatively, take cuttings, using strong sprouts without flower buds, and root in fine, gritty potting mix.

Use a tarp or trash barrel to collect debris generated by clean-up, and remove it to the compost pile. If you have not previously composted, find a quiet corner of the garden, and bring everything there. Even if you do nothing, this will eventually turn into a soil-like product composed of your garden’s own elements, whose use improves whatever is grown with it.

Order spring bulbs and plant them. The various narcissi should be planted in October, ideally, but you may put off tulip planting until Thanksgiving or later on the Vineyard. Likewise, it is often well to naturalize narcissi, away from ornamental beds, unless their ripening foliage can be tolerated aesthetically, while tulips are best planted in beds.

Vegetable Plot

As with the ornamental garden, the vegetable garden starts acquiring its autumn character in early August (if not actually in July if one aims to continue production through the fall). Space left by harvested garlic and onions is freed for subsequent crops, which are direct-sown then. Some of these, such as carrots, beets, kales, and late leeks, may remain in the garden until the following spring when covered by some means of protection. Others, such as cabbage, greens and spinach, may also be finished with freezing weather.

By this time in October, it’s time to prepare the garlic bed: weed, cultivate, and fertilize. A quick cover crop such as buckwheat can be sown and forked in, if desired, as long as it has several weeks to break down before the garlic is planted. I aim to plant garlic in mid-November to early December.

As crop rows are harvested out, or as plants such as tomatoes and eggplant have finished producing, the debris is composted, open spaces or beds are weeded, and then sown with a cover crop. Cover crops are plants intentionally sown to add something to the soil, as green manure, and to protect the soil from wind and water erosion. Additionally they “cover the space” against seeding by weeds.

The harvesting of some crops, such as pumpkins, squash, and sweet potatoes, requires curing in a warm place for several weeks for optimum storage life of the vegetables. Likewise, dahlia tubers need to cure, although with them it is in the ground, for optimum storage quality. ID well and leave them for several weeks after frosting; then, cut them back, dig, and store wrapped in newspaper.


Acquire and compost manure any time during the fall. Manure of cows, with their unique fermenting digestion, has special properties that manure of horses lacks. It is a source of weeds from their grain/hay diet, so avoid it raw; but compost it or age it, and it is the stuff of gardeners’ dreams. Stable muck — not mostly shavings — is a nutritious winter blanket for fruit trees, roses, asparagus, and rhubarb, and conditions any soil superbly. Protect orchard trees from winter rodent damage with tree guards, which you can buy or construct from wire fencing.

Walkways and Terraces

Weed and rake walkways and terraces; they will remain in a mainly weed-free condition until next spring’s weed seeds germinate. Clear out, sweep, and replace items in garden sheds, then stow pots, stakes, plant supports, and hoses drained, coiled, and tied off. Store “like with like” and consolidate these items. Clean and store tools, and, if you are truly conscientious, oil the blades and moving parts. Sort seed packets and store in a cool dry place.

Lawn Care

Using a spring rake, rake the lawn. This always has a revitalizing effect on grass and the amount of debris it pulls out is surprising. Mow and edge the lawn, leaving the blade at a higher setting. Repair lawn bare spots: scratch up (scarify) soil and sow grass seed, lightly covering (again, with the expectation of normal autumn rains). Harvest fallen leaves frequently and add to compost. If you want to be truly ahead of the game, perform maintenance on mowers and weed-whackers, or take them in to the shop. Clean jerry cans.

Soil Testing

Take soil tests for lawn, vegetable garden, and ornamental planting beds: each has different requirements, so one soil test for all is insufficient. Specify that you practice organic management and follow up on recommendations. Get information, download forms, and get mailing directions, at UMass website