By Rachel Anderson, Certified Professional Horticulturalist
Wow! October is a busy month in the garden! There’s a lot to do before the first frost and the rains set in for the long haul. I love working outside in October because the colors of autumn seem so bright and there’s a crispness in the air that makes me want to eat apples and drink tea. I also love how my garden looks after I’ve swept through and tidied up in preparation for winter.
In the vegetable garden:
- Harvest late apples, pears, and Asian pears
- Continue to harvest beans and zucchini if they’re still producing. By the time October rolls around I’m usually less dutiful about harvesting, mostly because the mere sight of another zucchini makes me want to walk the opposite direction.
- Pick all the tomatoes that are ripe or partially ripe. If you still have lots of green tomatoes, try pulling up the entire plant and hanging it upside down somewhere dry and cool (like a garage). They will ripen!
- It’s still not too late to plant out starts of kale, chard, mustard, or arugula. These veggies love the cooler temperatures of October, and may even overwinter.
- Pull weeds and pull out any veggies that are no longer producing.
- Now is the time to plant garlic. Mulch with straw or leaves. When you start to see little green shoots popping up, remove the mulch and side dress with a slow release vegetable fertilizer. (I accidentally fertilized mine this year with rose food and was rewarded with the best and biggest garlic bulbs I’ve ever grown! Some mistakes turn out alright in the end after all!)
In the ornamental garden:
- Pull those weeds you’ve been ignoring. With the return of the rainy season upon us, the soil is refreshed and yields the roots of weeds more easily than dry soil.
- Cut back any perennials that are tired looking or beginning to go dormant. I like to leave plants like asters, echinacea, rudbeckia, and agastache because they’re still blooming and, when they’re finally done, the flower heads have seeds that the wild birds enjoy eating.
- Spread compost or bark as a mulch, being careful not to put it up against the trunks of trees and shrubs. Mulching in the fall is an excellent way to protect newly planted plants over the winter, add organic matter to the soil, and help keep weeds under control. Plus it looks so very pretty!
- Rake fallen leaves. If you’re lucky enough to have maple, oak, or other deciduous trees in your yard, then you have a fabulous source of FREE MULCH! Rake your leaves up into a long pile and then pass over them a few times with a lawn mower to chop them up a bit before spreading them over your garden beds. This is also beneficial for vegetable beds. The leaves will quickly decompose, adding minerals to the soil and helping to loosen the soil. Be sure not to use any foliage that is diseased or buggy. Also steer clear of walnut leaves as they contain growth inhibitors that prevent seed germination and stunt the growth of existing trees and shrubs.
- There’s an excellent selection of conifers at the Nursery right now, including the coveted Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’, which is a bright golden form of our native shore pine. If you’ve been considering a conifer for that hole in your garden, definitely plan on stopping by to check out the selection. Fall is a perfect time of year to plant new trees and shrubs.
- October is a good time to move or divide perennials. It’s also a good time to move small shrubs or trees if you’ve decided they’re not where you’d like them after all. They’ll have all winter to establish new roots to support next season’s growth.
- Empty summer planters. Clean and store your pots for next year, or refill them with winter interest in mind.
- It’s still not too late to plant bulbs for next spring. Just think of those bright cheerful colors in the dark months of February and March!
- If you live in deer or bunny country, there are loads of great bulb varieties that the critters will usually leave alone, such as Allium, Daffodills, Fritillaria, Scilla, Galanthus (snowdrops), and Erythronium (tooth violet). In fact, because the bulbs of Fritillaria stink so, they actually repel ground dwellers like moles.
- Now is the time to start paperwhites in pots indoors for flowers and fragrance around Thanksgiving. The Nursery has three different varieties to choose from. They usually take about six weeks from time of planting until bud and bloom. If your house is cooler, it may take a bit longer. Plant successively for cheerful indoor color all winter long. Also try forcing Hyacinths. We have some that are pre-chilled at the nursery. Forced bulbs make wonderful hostess gifts for the holidays, so plant lots and plan to give some away!
- Select Amarylis bulbs. We have a great selection to choose from by the end of October. Don’t plant them yet if you want color for Christmas. These usually take 8-10 weeks from time of planting to bud and bloom.
- Lift and store tender bulbs like Dahlias and Begonias (especially Begonias). Gently brush the soil off the tubers and store in a cool dry location in a paper bag separated by newspaper. Dahlias can overwinter in the ground in some areas here. If you know your soil doesn’t drain well, or if you are up in the foothills, then be sure to lift and store your tubers the same way as Begonias.
- If you grew Geraniums, Fuchsias, or Begonias in pots or hanging baskets this summer, and they were so beautiful that you can’t bear to throw them away now, there is a solution for you! These plants can easily be overwintered. First, cut them way back (I mean way back to 2-3 inches and within the edges of the pot/basket) and then bring them indoors to overwinter in a cool, dark, and dry room. A garage or unheated greenhouse works well, or even a back room or closet, as long as it is cool but not freezing. Do this before the first frost hits (here’s a tip to help you know when: if you are closing windows and turning on the heat at night, it’s time to bring in plants for overwintering). During the winter months, keep them on the dry side, maybe watering just a bit each month or so. If you forget, it’s okay. When February or March rolls around, give them a careful inspection. You’re looking for little tiny bits of new growth trying to emerge from the dormant stems. At this time it is okay to move them somewhere a bit warmer and give them more regular water. When you really begin to see noticeable growth, go ahead and fertilize them with half strength liquid fertilizer. You’ll need somewhere to keep them so that they have good light and space to grow, but you should not move them outside overnight until all chance of frost has passed (usually around Mother’s Day for us here in Skagit Valley).
- If your hydrangeas are beginning to turn the wrong color (i.e. blue to pink or more commonly, pink to blue), now is a really good time to adjust your soil ph for next years flowers. If you want electric blue flowers, add aluminum sulfate. If you want pink flowers, add lime. If you’ve never had your soil tested, it’s not a bad idea to do so before you do too much soil ph adjusting. The WSU extension agency will be able to steer you in the right direction there.
- Don’t forget about the birds! Empty out your bird feeders and give them a good cleaning. Refill with fresh birdseed, preferably a mix that caters to our native overwintering birds like sparrows, juncos, and chickadees.
Remember to stop and relax with a cup of tea or coffee and bask in the last bright sunny days of the season.
About the author:
Rachel has been gardening since childhood, thanks to her mom, and has been part of the team at Christianson’s since 2002. She’s a Certified Professional Horticulturist with a passion for roses and vegetable gardening. Rachel and her family enjoy gardening together and now share their urban garden with a menagerie of ducks, chickens, two cats, and a dog.