When the sunflowers are ready to drop their seeds, you know it's time to start preparing for winter.
Illustration by Judith Ann Griffith/Seed Savers Exchange
For gardeners, October is a month of transitions. Shorter and cooler days signal the arrival of harvest season, but much depends on where you live in the U.S. In southern areas, you may be able to squeeze in weeks more of fall gardening. In northern latitudes and mountain areas, you had best start preparing for winter.
Maritime Canada and New England
The geese honk overhead as they fly south. We watch them pass as we clean frost-killed plants from the garden. Harvest tasks abound. Clean the root cellar and bring in cabbage, carrots, beets, leeks, apples and more. Harvest apples carefully; bruising shortens storage life. Winter squash need to be cured before storing to toughen the skin and decrease moisture in the flesh. Spread the squash in an airy shed or greenhouse to protect them from frost damage. After about two weeks, the skin will be hardened, and the squash can be stored at 50 to 65 degrees in a basement, garage or root cellar. Some people wipe the cured squash with a light coat of vegetable oil to retain moisture.
Plant garlic, and don’t forget fall flower bulbs. Protect fruit trees and grape vines from mice with tree guards or collars of quarter-inch hardware cloth. In the orchard, mow the grass short to discourage rodent nesting, and mulch perennials with leaves. Mid-November brings the Leonid meteor showers, signaling firewood season. It must be time to bake some pies.
Roberta Bailey, Fedco Seeds, Waterville, Maine
Frost is around the corner. Harvest tender crops or have fabric row covers ready to protect them. Try spraying leafy greens with a seaweed extract a few days before the first frost to toughen them up and extend the harvest. In mid-October, gather, wash, dry and cure the peanut crop. For long-lasting garlic, the storage area should be lower than 40 degrees or higher than 50 degrees; temperatures in between will initiate sprouting.
Plant yellow potato onions, Egyptian onions and garlic by mid-November. Test soil and spread lime or gypsum as needed. In late November, cut down asparagus tops and remove all the ferns. Weed and mulch berries and transplant new blueberry bushes. Enjoy the last outdoor lettuce, broccoli and celery. This year, try fermenting part of your cabbage harvest, for kimchi or sauerkraut. And take time to relax new seed catalogs will be in your mailbox any day.
Ira Wallace, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Va.
Do you know what your soils pH is? Most vegetables need a slightly acidic soil near 6.5. Fall is a good time to test soil and apply lime to raise the pH or sulfur to lower the pH, as needed. In early October, start sowing seeds for lettuce, spinach, radishes and other cool-season vegetables. To speed up spinach germination, refrigerate moistened seeds for a week prior to planting.
For a bounty of blooms next year, sow seeds outside now for perennial flowers, hardy annuals and wildflowers; the latter especially need to overwinter for good spring germination. Prepare the soil by loosening it and adding organic material, keeping it moist until the seeds germinate.
Becky Wilder, Seeds for the South, Graniteville, S.C.
October brings relief from heat, and time for serious fall gardening. Prepare soil with compost, and transplant cool-season crops such as cabbage. Lettuce can be directly seeded, or your local nursery probably has good varieties ready to set out as transplants. Seed short-day onion varieties and leeks — they’re super easy — in our fall/winter gardens. Sow carrots, beets, radicchio and radishes. Don’t forget the herb garden; chives, dill, parsley, chervil, arugula and thyme all thrive in the cool season.
Local nurseries may have container-grown trees ready to plant now, which gives the root system time to establish before the spring growth surge begins. Unusual fruit trees such as satsumas and kumquats may be available at a bargain price. To get them through the winter, pull mulch up in a cone shape to cover the trunk above the graft. Even if we have the first cold winter in decades, the grafted portion will be back in production in a couple of years.
William D. Adams, Burton, Texas
As the busy gardening time winds down, take the time now to pull perennial weeds that would grow quickly in the spring. Place plant debris in your composter, except for diseased leaves and stems — they should be disposed of separately to avoid the spread of disease. Mulch strawberries and other perennials before the first hard freeze hits. If the weather is dry this fall, water evergreens deeply to prevent winter needle burn.
Keep some large plants or tall garden structures in place for visual interest in the winter. Leaving seed heads in place will also provide food for birds and animals. Take advantage of the plentiful plant material — autumn flowers, colored foliage, seed pods and branches — to create seasonal flower arrangements for your home, both indoors and out.
If this fall is as warm as the last few years, there will be opportunities in early October to seed spinach, lettuce and other greens for use until heavy frosts come. Try some interesting Asian greens such as Tatsoi, Pai Tsai and Hu Hsien to add color and vitamins to your stir-fry mix. An ideal area to grow these late vegetables is in a sunny garden bed against the south side of your home.
Connie Dam-Byl, William Dam Seeds Ltd., Dundas, Ontario
North Central and Rockies
Nighttime temperatures begin their plunge. Resist the urge to let go of your garden once frost has hit. A layer of fabric row covers can postpone the inevitable for tender crops, and often prolongs the salad greens harvest well into November.
The last days before soil freezes or snow covers garden beds are important in preparing for success next spring. Time spent now to compost, fertilize and mulch will pay big dividends. Every bed should be covered with something to help protect and enhance the winter-long biological activity in the soil. Use leftover leaves from the yard; they can be removed in the spring to allow soil to warm. If you live in snow country, mark crops for winter harvest, such as kale, Brussels sprouts and parsnips, with tall sticks. Look one last time at your garden map and mark any changes. An accurate map will help you plan for next year.
Bill McDorman, Seeds Trust, High Altitude Gardens, Hailey, Idaho
October days are often some of the finest. Take advantage of beautiful weather to put the summer garden to bed, and plant garlic and shallots. Space garlic cloves approximately 6 inches apart; one clove yields one head the following summer. Larger cloves typically yield larger heads. Shallot bulbs also are planted 6 inches apart. Unlike garlic, which forms a head, shallots will produce several individual bulbs.
Harvest pumpkins, squash and gourds, and bring them in to cure. Divide perennials and plant tulips and daffodil bulbs. Plastic tunnels placed over kale, lettuce and leeks will protect them from rain and frost damage for an extended winter harvest.
Rose Marie Nichols McGee, Nichols Garden Nursery, Albany, Ore., and Josh Kirschenbaum, Territorial Seed Co., Cottage Grove, Ore.
In the high desert, the first frost can come dismayingly early, when nights are clear and the mountain air is crisp. You can extend the tomato season by harvesting fruit as it starts to turn pink, then let it finish ripening inside. These frosty nights are actually good news for some cool-season crops, such as carrots, spinach, kale, cabbage and leeks, which are all sweetened by light frosts.
Winter squash and pumpkin harvests result in artistic heaps of many shapes and colors, and of course the first pot of butternut squash soup. Store pumpkins and squash at 50 to 65 degrees and a relative humidity of 50 percent to 70 percent, if possible — but first cure them in a well-ventilated room. This promotes the healing of wounds, thus increasing storage life.
Yarrow, coreopsis, pinks and penstemon are just a few of the many perennial plants that will thrive when planted in the fall. Hardy annuals such as sweet alyssum and calendula fill the fall garden with color.
Emily Gatch, Seeds of Change, Santa Fe, N.M.