Sara Swanson

October Gardening Advice for Manchester 2016

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by Jennifer Fairfield

Editor’s Note: Manchester resident Jennifer Fairfield owns and operates the Garden Mill in Chelsea, serves on the Manchester Community Garden Committee, and volunteers with the school gardens at Klager and the MECC.

I have no idea where the month of September went – do you? Last I looked, it was hot and humid, with no rain. The last couple of days, it has been chilly and seemingly determined to make up for the lack of rain all summer. I’m not complaining though. My gardens really need a good soaking rain like we’ve been getting, and I really can’t say I miss those hot, humid days! I would like a few crisp, sunny days to get some of my late-season garden chores done, however.

October is a great month for getting things done in your gardens and yard. The days are often cool and clear, making the work a little easier, which is a good thing, since there is usually lots of work to do this month!

Vegetable Garden:

  • Though there doesn’t seem to be any danger of frost in the forecast so far, we are almost guaranteed to have some frost at some point this month, so if you still have plants in your vegetable garden, keep fleece row covers handy. Some crops, such as kale, cabbage, and broccoli can take a bit of frost and may actually have improved taste, but most will not survive much frost.
  • Harvest the last of your warm-weather produce early in the month. This can be a great month to do canning and freezing, because the kitchen isn’t so hot! Or just enjoy the last of the fresh tomatoes, peppers, beans, and squash from your garden.
  • Plant garlic! Our garlic just arrived, and it looks great. We have 5 different organic varieties, ranging from mild to spicy in flavor. You really should try them all in your garden this year. Did you know that there are over 500 varieties of garlic in the world?! If all you’ve ever eaten is the stuff you find at the grocery store, you owe it to yourself to try some of the others out there. And growing your own garlic is so easy. Come talk to me about it – it’s one of my favorite subjects!
  • Once your plants have stopped producing, clean out the garden. Do this early in the month so you’re not out in the freezing temperatures at the end of the month, wishing you had done it sooner! Bag up and toss in the trash any plants with any signs of disease. Composting diseased plants is not a good idea, as winter composting temperatures are generally not high enough to kill off disease.
  • After you’ve cleaned out your garden, don’t forget to clean your tools before putting them away. Doing so will help your tools last longer, and make them work better for you. Fine Gardening recommends cleaning and sharpening them regularly, throughout the season. If you are only going to do it once though, the best time is at the end of the season, so they don’t spend the entire winter covered in moist dirt, which can promote rust.

Flower Garden:

  • You probably still have time to divide and transplant perennials, but make that a chore you do sooner, rather than later. The plants need to have time to get acclimated in their new space before we start getting killing frosts and before the ground freezes. After planting them, give them a good layer of mulch, keep them well-watered, and cover them up at night for a while if temps are dipping into the low 40s or lower. All of these things will help to ensure that your plants will survive the winter and come back up in the spring.
  • Make sure your plants go into winter with a good layer of mulch over their roots. It’s not unusual for us to get thaws throughout the winter, which can cause heaving, leading to damage to the crown and roots, or even to the death of the plant. Mulch can help keep the soil temperature consistently cold, helping to eliminate these problems.
  • Keep hoses handy this month, in case we don’t get a lot of rain (I know that doesn’t seem possible right now, but we all know how fickle the weather can be). Keep watering up until the ground freezes, as a lack of water causes stress to the plants, making it harder for your plants to make it through the winter. This is especially true of anything newly planted. Do be careful that you aren’t leaving hoses outside with water in them when we start getting freezing temps though, as this can cause them to split open when the water freezes.
  • If you haven’t already, it’s time to dig up your dahlias, cannas, caladium, and glads. These tender perennials can’t survive our winters, so they need to be dug up and stored in a cool, dry place. The best way to store them is in something loose and lightweight, like Styrofoam “peanuts” or peat, in an attached garage or other cool spot. Keep an eye on them to be sure not to let them freeze during the winter – temps in the range of 35° to 50° F are good.
  • Ornamental grasses and perennials – I like to leave my ornamental grasses and other perennials up for the winter and cut them back in early spring, while other people like to cut them back now. If the plants aren’t suffering from disease, you get to decide what look you prefer in your garden. If any of them are diseased, cut them back, and dispose of the plant material so as not to contaminate your compost.
  • There are some plants that do better when cut back, and others that do better when left up, so make sure you know what’s best for your particular plants. I tend to rely on one of my favorite books for these sorts of details – Nancy Szerlag’s “Perennials for Michigan.” Her advice is priceless, and she covers almost every plant I have or want to have in my gardens. And because it’s one of my favorite books, you can find it at the store!
  • Plant spring-blooming bulbs this month. It’s best to wait until we have had at least a couple of good frosts, so wait a little longer to do this task. You want the soil to be a bit warm to encourage root growth, but you don’t want it to be so warm (either the air or soil) that it encourages the plant to put out new growth. Be sure to give them a good covering of mulch when you do plant them.
  • There have been a number of people in the store recently asking about forcing spring-blooming bulbs. If you are considering that, you should get them now, as they need a chilling period of 8 to 12 weeks. Depending on when you hope to have them blooming, you will want to get them started on their chilling soon. Come see us if you would like information on how to force bulbs. We have very detailed instructions for a number of ways to force all kinds of bulbs that we’d be happy to share with you.
  • If your summer-blooming container plants are starting to fade, replace them with ones to take you all the way through fall, such as mums, ornamental kale, and asters. You can add decorative gourds and pumpkins to your planters, too.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • As with your perennials, keep watering your trees and shrubs all the way up until the ground freezes. This is especially true for any that you planted this year, and all conifers, regardless of when they were planted. With the dry conditions we had this summer, your trees and shrubs need your help to get through the stress of winter.
  • With shorter days and cooler temperatures, leaves are starting to fall. You don’t want to leave them on your lawn, as that can cause issues for the grass, but you have better things to do than spend hours raking them up – right? Well, the good news is – you don’t have to. The best things to do with fallen leaves are: 1. Mow them up and mulch them into your lawn or 2. Shred them (a mower works well for this) and use them for mulching your perennials, trees, and shrubs or 3. Shred them and use them to create leaf mold. Organic Gardening Magazine has a terrific article on how and why to do leaf mold.


  • Speaking of mowing, even though the temperatures feel drastically cooler, we really don’t seem to be in for a serious cool-down any time soon. These temps and the rain are ideal conditions for growing grass, so make sure you are keeping it mowed. Leaving the grass too tall going into the winter can promote disease.
  • Mid-October is a good time to give your lawn one last application of fertilizer to help it be at its healthiest going into winter.


  • If you are putting in new plants this fall and you also like to watch birds, consider plants that will attract more birds and more varieties of birds. Plants that provide seed or berries can attract some birds, while plants that attract beneficial insects will bring birds that feed on insects. Still other plants can provide shelter for birds – either as places for building nests out of the reach of predators or as places to stay warm and dry. So take a look around your yard and see where you might add some plantings for both you and the birds!
  • Don’t put your hummingbird feeders or birdbaths away yet. As long as we aren’t getting freezing temperatures, both your hummer feeders and birdbaths can still be useful to the birds. The hummingbirds are still hanging around, and can still use the extra calories for their flights south. Once temps are dipping below freezing at night, you could bring the hummer feeders inside at night and dump the water out of the baths to keep from cracking either of them, putting the feeders back out and refilling the baths in the morning.
  • One of my favorite bird-watching activities at the time of year is visiting the local sanctuaries to see the Sandhill Cranes. Have you been to CraneFest? If not, you really should go. There’s lots to see and do, but the best part is watching the cranes fly into the sanctuary in the evening – it’s an amazing sight! This year’s festival will be on October 8th and 9th. Check out Michigan Audubon’s page for all the details.

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