October 2017 gardening advice
submitted by Jennifer Fairfield
What kind of weird September weather was that? We had late-September weather at the beginning of the month and more like July weather towards the end. Late September should be a time for cool-temperature plants to be happily growing and producing, but the lettuces that I planted in late August suffered from the excessive heat, and some of my arugula bolted! On the other hand, my tomato plants produced like crazy, as did my peppers and beans. That party seems to be pretty much over now though, and we seem to be getting back to normal temps, which means freezing temps can’t be too far off. I highly recommend getting your fall clean-up chores done sooner rather than later – we will be seeing cold temperatures before too long!
If you still have things growing in your garden, that’s great, but if you hope to have them continue to do so, keep row covers handy for when we get frost, which is pretty much guaranteed this month – there is a 50% chance that we’ll have frost by October 5, and a 90% chance that we will by October. Some crops, such as kale, cabbage, and broccoli can take a bit of frost, but most other plants in the veggie garden won’t survive without a little protection.
Once you’ve harvested all of your warm-weather crops, pull out and compost the plants, unless they have signs of disease. Diseased plants should be tossed in the garbage so that you don’t run the risk of reintroducing the disease to your garden via the compost.
After cleaning out your garden, it’s time to think about adding things back to it, and I don’t mean plants (though there is one that should be planted this month, but more on that later). I’m talking about nutrients. Healthy soil is key to a good garden. If you haven’t done a soil test recently, do one now. A soil test will tell you what your garden is lacking, and working on fixing that now can help get your plants off to a better start in the spring. You can get a quick-and- easy soil test at The Garden Mill, or send away to MSU Extension for a test kit that gives you much more in-depth detail about the state of your soil.
October is ideal for planting bulbs, even in the vegetable garden. The bulbs I’m referring to, of course, are garlic! I might have mentioned this once or twice before, but in case you missed it, I love growing garlic! I typically grow somewhere around forty heads of garlic every year, and it’s never enough. If you’re a garlic lover, you really should try growing your own. It’s really easy to do, and the results are fabulous. Seed garlic (what garlic grown for planting is called) is ready to go in your garden.
One last chore in the veggie garden this month should be making notes of what went right, what went wrong, what you’d like to do differently, and what you want to make sure to do again. It’s much easier to do that now than to try to remember next spring!
As I mentioned, October is the time to plant bulbs. Spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, and alliums, planted now, make spring-time beautiful. We have a wide variety of bulbs in the store now, with more arriving in a week or so. Bulbs can be planted any time before the ground freezes, but I usually wait until we’ve had at least one frost. You want there to still be warmth in the ground to encourage root growth before the real cold sets in. Most bulbs will need full sun to grow well, so pick a spot that gets good sun in the spring and also has good drainage. Crocus and daffodils can be planted around trees that will leaf out after the flowers have finished blooming. When choosing bulbs, pick the largest ones in the box – bigger bulbs of the same variety will generally produce bigger flowers. Also be sure to choose ones that are firm to the touch, as softness may be a sign of decay or disease. Generally, bulbs should be planted 3 times as deep as the size of the bulb, with the pointy side up, covered with soil, and watered well. After the ground freezes, pile on a deep layer of mulch to keep the ground temperature even throughout the winter – you don’t want a warm-up to cause the ground to heave and push your bulbs up out of the ground.
There’s still time to divide and transplant perennials, but don’t wait too long. They will need some time for their roots to get established before winter sets in or they might not make it through. Be sure to put down some mulch at planting time – to hold in moisture – then pile more on when the ground is frozen, to prevent frost heave.
When your perennials have stopped blooming, it’s time to decide whether or not to cut them back. There are reasons to do so for some plants, and reasons to consider not doing so. One reason in the “do it” column is to control the self-seeding of some plants. If you don’t want new plants showing up everywhere, things like coreopsis and sneezeweed should definitely be deadheaded. In the “don’t do it column” are reasons such as the fact that flower stalks left standing will help to hold in mulch and snow, both of which act as blankets to keep the ground temperature even.
Once your summer-blooming annuals have given their all, toss them on the compost pile so they can help add nutrition to next year’s plants. Replace them with fall-bloomers such as mums, asters, flowering kale, and pansies.
Trees and shrubs:
New tree and shrub planting should also be done early this month. Keep watering all trees and shrubs up until the ground freezes, if nature isn’t providing at least an inch of rain each week. Many of us have had a pretty dry summer, which has stressed the trees and shrubs and can cause leaves to turn color and fall early. When they go into winter stressed from a lack of moisture, they have a much harder time making it through the cold months.
If the mulch on your trees and shrubs is in need of replenishing, wait until the ground freezes to add more. Adding mulch now will keep the warmth in the ground longer, which won’t be good for the plants as the air cools down. When mulching, don’t pile the mulch up around the tree trunk in “mulch volcanoes.” This is an old-fashioned way of mulching that actually can cause problems for your trees. MSU extension offers tips on proper mulching and what types of mulch to use here.
Keep mowing as long as the grass is growing, which will be until we get some killing frosts – but lower the height to about 2 inches. Grass left too long over the winter is more susceptible to disease. Don’t bag up the clippings when you mow – mulching the clippings into the lawn will help add nutrients back into the ground, which in turn will help feed the lawn.
While you’re mowing your lawn, mow up the leaves and leave them as mulch on the lawn, too! If you have too many leaves, rake them up, run over them with your mower a few times, and use the shredded leaves as mulch for your perennials, trees, and shrubs, or add them to your compost pile. Don’t leave them whole on your lawn through the winter though, as that can lead to a fungal disease in your lawn.
If the leaves on your trees are showing signs of disease, as one of my maples is, you can help to reduce the chances of your trees having problems again next year by raking up and burning the leaves or otherwise removing them from the property. Infected leaves left on the ground, even if chopped up, give disease a host over the winter, which means the disease will be around again next year to infect your trees again.
One last chore to do before you let the garden and yard go for the winter – 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, but at the very least, do so at the end of the season, so they don’t spend the entire winter covered in rust-producing dirt.
If you stopped feeding the birds for the summer, do start again now! The migrating birds will be very grateful for the extra protein and fat as they journey from their summer breeding grounds to their winter homes. And keep your hummingbird feeders out for a little while yet, too – just remember to bring them in at night if the temperature is predicting to go below freezing. I keep my hummer feeders out until about the end of the month, for the odd late-comer.
Keep your bird baths clean and full, too, and consider adding a heater this year, if you haven’t already. Water sources for the birds get scarcer as the temperatures go down, and they need water just as much as food. Watching birds romp about in a heated bird bath all winter is incredibly entertaining!