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Weekly Gardening Tips for Your Area


To Do List: Zone 4

Susan Wells
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September 2012 To Do List, Zone 4

Click the image to enlarge this map of the USDA Plant Hardiness Map and find the zone where you live.

Now is the time to think about planting a fall garden. In the fall, the weather is milder, there aren’t as many insect pests and the soil actually tends to be more moist, but well-draining.

Preparing for a Fall Vegetable Garden

  • Clean the garden of weeds and spent plants. Dispose of anything diseased and compost the rest. If this will be your second planting season, make note of what was where, so you can rotate your crops where possible.
  • Move existing mulch to the side. If it’s still in good condition, you can re-use it for the fall. Most likely a lot of it has decomposed already and you’ll need to add a bit more. Straw or shredded leaves make excellent mulch for vegetable gardens.
  • Loosen the soil. If your soil has gotten compacted during the course of the summer, fluff it up with a garden fork.
  • Amend the soil. Replenish the soil by working in some compost or other amendments. You can top dress with it or work it in while you are loosening the soil. Have your planting layout done before you add the compost, so you add it where the plants will be growing and not in the paths. If you choose to use manure, make sure it has thoroughly composted for at least 6 months.
  • Prepare for winter. If you are planning on using any kind of frost protection, like a cold frame or hoop cover, get your structures in place now. Don’t put the covers in place yet, just the framing. Now you’re ready to start planting. Of course, if this all sounds like too much work, you can always sow a “green manure” cover crop and let your garden tend itself until spring.


Image by Ting Chen, Wing, via Flickr

Canna bulbs, which are technically known as rhizomes, should be dug up in fall to protect them from freezing. If you live in zones 8-11, your cannas can remain in the ground.

  • Once frost has blackened the tops of cannas, dahlias, and gladiolus, it’s time to dig them if you plan to store them for planting in the spring. Dig carefully so as not to injure them, and then let dry at 60-70 degrees F in a well-ventilated spot out of direct sun with the foliage attached.
  • Clean out rose beds and apply fungicide one last time to susceptible varieties.
  • Squirrels “read” the disturbed soil and marks you leave when planting their favorite tulips and crocuses. Outwit them by concentrating spring bulb plantings in large groups and disguising your marks by flooding the soil surface with water, then cover with leaves topped with some shrubby branches.


  • Remove the debris of summer annuals, disposing of any diseased plants in the trash and composting healthy plants.
  •  Throw seeds of hardy annuals where you want them to bloom next year. Larkspur, poppies, cleome and cosmos will frequently take root from seeds sown in autumn and conditioned under winter snow.
  • This time of year, the leaves of Black Eyed Susans often turn partly or completely black. This is caused by a fungus. It’s best to remove infected stems and leaves at the end of the season. Next year, thin plants and remove volunteer seedlings to provide good air movement around plants. Look for leaf spots early in the season and pinch off infected leaves. Never remove more than 1/3rd of the plant’s foliage.
  • Sow wildflower seeds for spring bloom.
  • You can plant ‘Icicle’ pansies in spots where summer annuals have been cleared out. They will bloom until December, and then lie down for the winter. Cover them with evergreen cuttings until earliest spring, when they’ll be ready to sprout new buds.


Image by Nick Saltmarsh via Flickr

Harvest pumpkins when the rinds are hard, and leave a short stem. They are actually less likely to rot with part of the stem attached.

  • If you want to preserve herbs like parsley, chives, tarragon, dill, or cilantro, fill sections of an ice cube tray to the top with the chopped herbs, then pour just enough water over them to cover. When the cubes are frozen solid, pop them out and store them in plastic freezer bags.
  • Harvest pumpkins and winter squash before the first heavy frost.
  • Kale, Brussels sprouts, and collards will be sweetest if you wait until after a light frost to harvest.
  • If a sudden early cold snap into the teens is predicted, cover plants, as the sudden drop in temperature may injure plants.
  • Once the nights are consistently below 50 degrees F, it’s best to harvest any remaining mature green tomatoes, even if the vines haven’t yet been hit by frost.
  • Cover beds of lettuce, spinach, arugula, and other greens with floating row covers to extend your harvest season.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Fall is a good time for planting many trees and shrubs in this region, but needled evergreens such as pine and spruce do best when planted by the end of September. This gives them time to establish a good root system before the ground freezes.
  •  Keep newly planted trees watered regularly throughout the fall.
  • Pick your pears when they are slightly immature and chill them in the refrigerator (Bartlett pears need a day or two, winter pears like Anjou or Bosc need 3-4 weeks of chilling). When you’re ready, let them ripen at room temperature or in a paper bag with an apple or banana.
  • Cut out raspberry and blackberry canes that have just finished fruiting.

Lawn and Turf

  • Core aeration is the best way to revive a lawn that’s developed a thick layer of thatch or to improve areas where the soil has become compacted. Cores will decompose on the lawn in a couple of weeks.
  • Test the lawn soil before automatically adding lime. Get a professional soil test done, which is easy and inexpensive (around $12 to $20) through your state agricultural Extension Service or purchase a soil test kit.


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