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Weekly Gardening Tips for Your Area


October 2012 To Do List: Zone 4

Susan Wells
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October 2010 To Do List, Zone 4

Not sure which zone you live in? Click this map to expand.

Putting your garden to bed for the winter can be a satisfying task, much like cleaning out the garage. You are looking ahead to spring, while clearing away the debris of the summer. Much of what you do now can vastly reduce the problems you may have next spring. It can also be a good time to plan new beds for next year’s vegetables or flowers. In the flower and vegetable gardens, cut off old flower stalks, and discard any diseased plants. Diseased or infested vegetation should always be removed so eggs won’t hatch early and infect your plants next year. If you add the materials to your compost, make sure the pile gets hot enough to kill any bacteria or fungus. If you are unsure, best to put it in the trash or municipal recycling.

After clean up, let your garden air dry for at least a week. After the airing, spread an inch of compost over the garden followed by loose mulch. You can use mulched leaves, straw or hay. Mulch is meant to keep the temperatures around your plants even so that the soil won’t heave during an early thaw followed by freezing. It also keeps the plants from starting growth too early in the spring. Lay mulch around shallow-rooted plants after the ground freezes. Avoid piling it against trunks or crowns which can cause rot. If you have a rodent problem where you live, a thick mulch may not be a good idea since the critters love straw and hay winter homes.


  • While you can wait until spring to cut back the tops of perennial flowers, it’s nice to get some of this chore out of the way in the fall after a hard frost. The foliage of plants like daylilies is usually unattractive by late fall, so you may want to cut these back now. Also, the leaves of Siberian irises are much easier to cut back in fall when they are still crisp instead of the spring when they are soggy and nasty.
  • Perennials  that should not be cut back in fall include heucheras, sea thrift (Armeria), hellebore, pinks (Dianthus), and rock cress (Arabis). Some perennials like purple coneflower, rudbeckia and ornamental grasses can be left standing for winter interest and bird feed. Plants in the aster/daisy family look lovely in winter snow, and it doesn’t matter whether you cut them back in fall or spring.

    Image by zhannaprokopeva via Shutterstock

    Let some perennials, such as rudbeckia, dry in your garden. The seed heads look attractive and will provide food in the off-season for hungry birds.

  • To preserve bulbs, cut back foliage and stems after a killing frost and lift bulbs with a garden fork. Shake off excess soil and dry tubers in a warm dry place and store in barely moist wood shavings, peat moss, or vermiculite.
  • Dispose of diseased plants such as tomatoes with blight, peonies with fungus, and phlox with mildew by burying them or sending them to the city compost facility. Home compost piles are not usually hot enough to kill the disease organisms.


  • Sow seeds of poppies, larkspur, sweet alyssum, cosmos, nasturtium, spider flower (cleome), and nicotiana in your annual bed. Your success rate will vary with the weather, but you’ll usually get some extra-early spring flowers from these fall-sown seeds.
  • Frost-tolerant winter weeds that germinate as the weather cools, then survive the winter to grow actively in the spring, such as henbit, bittercress, and chickweed, are popping up. Spend some time weeding them now and cut back on your chores next spring.
  • If you have planted your annuals in pots, when they are finished, empty the soil and plants into the compost pile. Don’t plan to reuse the soil. Most likely it’s depleted of nutrients and may harbor diseases and insect pests. Rinse out the pots to remove caked-on soil and salts.


  • Image by ChameleonsEye via Shutterstock

    Now’s the time to harvest winter squash and pumpkins from the garden. Store them in a cool, dark place to allow them to “cure,” or harden, until you’re ready to use them.

    Some pathogens, including bacterial spot, canker, and speck and fungal diseases such as early blight and alternaria, can be carried over from one year to the next on tomato cages and stakes. Clean soil and plant residues off the cages and stakes, then disinfect in a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water for five minutes. Rinse well, then air dry before storing for the winter.

  • Throw about a foot of hay over your un-harvested root crops before the ground freezes. This will insulate the soil and you’ll be able to go out in late fall and early winter, pull back the hay, and continue your harvest of carrots, beets, and parsnips. Those you harvest should be stored in a cool, dark place.
  • Harvest all winter squash and pumpkins before a killing frost. Wash them with soap and water and dry well to prevent bacterial infection, then store in a cool, dry place.
  • If you have more greens than you can eat, chop and blanch them in small batches for the freezer. You can add them to your winter soups and stews, or any dish that could use a dose of powerhouse vitamins.
  • Perform a germination test on last year’s stored seed. Place 10 seeds between moist paper towels for a few days. If fewer than eight of the 10 seeds sprout, consider starting with fresh seed.
  • If late blight on potatoes was a problem this season, dig up and destroy all infected tubers (those with brownish purple spots). Start with certified disease-free seed potatoes next spring. Don’t put infected plant parts in the compost pile as some disease-infected tissue may survive the cold.
  • Now is also a good time to replenish the soil in your garden by adding compost, chopped leaves, or other organic matter.
  • Store garden chemicals and sprays in a place where the temperature won’t go below 40 degrees.
  • Sow a cover crop of winter rye in vacant beds.

Trees & Shrubs

  • It is time to prune deciduous plants when they have shed their leaves and are completely dormant. Shrubs that send up many shoots from the base should be pruned now. Take out only about one-third of the largest branches at the main stem.
  • You can still plant trees and evergreens that are balled or in burlap until early October. Make sure they get plenty of water to establish roots before the soil freezes.
  • Keep watering your evergreens right up until the ground freezes. They will continue to draw and store water until the roots are frozen. Water evergreen shrubs on relatively warm days if winter precipitation is below average.
  • Mulch shrubs two to three inches deep, making sure that mulch stays a few inches away from the base of the shrub.
  • If rabbits, rodents, or deer have been a problem in past winters, spread garden netting or erect snow fencing around abused trees.


  • Lawns don’t need to be mowed as much because of shorter days and less sun. Mow as needed until the lawn fully stops growing late in the season.
  • Warm fall weather may cause brown patches in your lawn. Core-aerate these spots as needed, which will allow water to percolate deeper and the grass to green up. Apply an organic lawn fertilizer after the spots are aerated.
  • As leaves fall from deciduous trees, mulch them into the lawn, which saves time and feeds the lawn with organic matter and nutrients.
  • Set your mower blades low for the last time or two of mowing. Long grass going into winter provides bedding and cover for rodents and can lead to snow mold in the spring.
  • Make use of plentiful leaves for natural mulch. If you don’t want to mulch them into your lawn, you can rake or blow leaves from the lawn into beds to provide organic nutrients.


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