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Weekly Gardening Tips for Your Area


October 2012 To-Do List: Zone 5

Susan Wells
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October 2012 To Do List, Zone 5

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Leaves, leaves, leaves – many people spend the fall raking and bagging leaves.  Try the smarter, easier, earth-friendly way. You can mow over the leaves in your yard, providing nutrients for your grass. Or you can rake or blow leaves from your grass into your beds.  Or, think of all the compost you can make with the leafy organic material that is ready to decay. Simply create an out-of-sight leaf pile with a hollow in the center to catch rain, or  place the leaves in wire-mesh or wooden bins. To hasten decomposition, first shred the leaves with a lawnmower or leaf-shredding machine. The resulting leaf mold is ambrosia for garden beds.


Image by V.J. Matthews via Shutterstock

Fall’s cooler temperatures are necessary for these papery-shelled bulbs to produce beautiful spring flowers.

  • Although you can plant spring bulbs as late as Thanksgiving, planting them earlier is better so the bulbs can take root. If you haven’t already, order your bulbs now or go to Home Depot’s garden center so you can get your top choices.
  • Tuck some bulbs among perennials. As perennials grow, their leaves can hide declining bulb foliage that may be unattractive, but is best left in place to feed the bulbs.
  • To preserve bulbs, after a killing frost, cut back foliage and stems and lift bulbs with a garden fork. Shake off excess soil and dry tubers in a warm dry place in barely moist wood shavings, peat moss, or vermiculite.
  • Overcrowded perennials won’t bloom as well as those with adequate space and nutrients. Carefully dig them up, damaging as little of the roots as possible. Dispose of any damaged or diseased pieces and transplant the healthy parts.
  • Groom tall perennials such as helenium, ironweed, asters and helianthus by cutting off the long stems with dead flowers low to the ground.
  • Cut off the foliage from peonies, then dig in a trowel full of bone meal around each plant.
  • Remove withered foliage from hostas, but wait until spring growth has started to divide and relocate plants.
  • Don’t leave any debris around peonies, roses and other flowers that are prone to fungal diseases.


Image by zhannaprokopeva via Shutterstock

Allow some flowers, like rubeckias, to dry naturally in your garden. They’ll provide winter interest, and the seed heads will offer food to hungry song birds.

  • 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.
  • Don’t completely deadhead faded perennials, biennials and annuals if you want to collect seed (non-hybrids only) or wish to let them self-sow for next year. Nicotiana, poppies, larkspur, clary sage and many others fall into this “leave-alone” group. Dried seeds will also help attract birds to your garden.
  • 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.
  • If you have some coleus or geranium plants you would like to keep over the winter, take cuttings and bring them indoors to root. Dust rooting hormone powder on the cut ends to help roots get started in the potting mixture. Grow in a sunny east or south-facing window.


  • Amend your garden soil in fall for spring planting. Work the garden soil only when it is dry and does not stick to garden tools. Add lime or gypsum early to give these amendments time to react in the soil before the next growing season. You can also dig in compost, manure or shredded fall leaves into the vegetable beds.
  • 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.
  • Harvest the big green marbles from the bottom of Brussel sprouts stalks and let the smaller ones above mature. Brussel sprouts are always sweeter after they have endured a frost.
  • Plant garlic bulbs now. Their roots need a head start before the ground freezes solid.  Break the bulbs into individual cloves and plant about an inch deep in loose rich soil.
  • It’s time to harvest potatoes. On a sunny day, dig up the tubers, brush off dirt, and lay them in the sun for a few hours to cure. Then store them in a dark, cool place at 40-50 degrees.
  • Spinach can even be sown now through Thanksgiving and covered with fabric for early spring harvest.
  • Store garden chemicals and sprays in a place where the temperature won’t go below 40 degrees.

    Image by ChameleonsEye via Shutterstock

    Pumpkins and winter squash can be harvested now. Store them in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to use them.

Tree & Shrubs

  • If you used a TreeGator watering bag this summer, it’s a good idea to remove it now and examine the tree bark under the bag. Moisture that has accumulated may have started to rot the bark and harmful insects may have set up housekeeping. Allow the trunk to dry out before watering.
  • If there are shrubs you’d like to move, dig them up and transplant them to a location with the appropriate light, soil, space, and moisture conditions. Water well so soil settles around the roots.
  • If your privets or yews are out of control, shape them by carefully cutting away branches and stems at a node – the juncture where branches and stems meet.
  • When pruning, thin out one-third of the oldest branches of forsythia, lilac, spirea, and potentilla for better bloom and shape next spring.
  • Clean up and remove decaying fruit under your fruit trees since they can harbor pests and disease. It’s best to pick any shriveled fruit hanging on the trees too, but you may want to wait until the birds have had their fill.
  • Protect young tree trunks and shrubs from damage from mice, rabbits and deer by installing a barrier such as hardware cloth or a chicken wire fence close to the trunk.
  • Water trees now through hard frost if conditions are dry so that they enter dormancy in a well-hydrated state. Evergreens -needled and broadleaf types like rhododendron – are particularly vulnerable to winter desiccation.
  • If evergreens show some browning or yellowing of needles this month and next. don’t worry. The oldest, innermost ones typically shed after a few years on the tree.
  • Be on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. Do this before harsh weather arrives so the trees are not susceptible to breaking and disease.

Lawn & Turf

  • Liriope or monkey grass benefits from being divided in fall or spring. Each plant consists of several green blades from one small bulb. Dig up a clump, pull apart the bulbs and roots, or you can just cut a large clump into three or four pieces. Transplant the clump at same depth as the original plant.
  • 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.
  • 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 lawn fertilizer after the spots are aerated.


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