October Gardening To-do List

What to do in your garden before the first frost hits.

Credit: iStock / Eileen Hart

Here’s what you should be doing in your garden before the first frost hits

Make good use of your leaves! Use this valuable resource to:

  • Mulch rhubarb thickly, leaving crown areas open
  • Place in the bottom of tall or large containers to take up space, then fill remainder with soil and plant bulbs or perennials.
  • Create an impromptu spring display in problematic rocky or tree-rooty areas: Simply pile on a thick layer of leaves, top with SeaSoil or topsoil, add bonemeal (optional) and lay bulbs in drifts. Cover with more leaves and a few more inches of soil. Firm soil, water well.
  • Make your own leaf compost to use on acidic soil lovers, lily of the valley, etc.
  • Keep a pile or bag of leaves near your compost so you can layer with kitchen waste
  • Layer leaves on your perennial beds for insulation against the cold winds. It’s like a down quilt for your garden!

Use your leaves as they are, or run them through a chipper or place them in a plastic garbage can and shred with a line trimmer to create a nourishing and good-looking winter mulch for trees and flowerbeds. Food garden Plant garlic in rich soil in the sunniest area of your garden, remembering that it will take up that space for about nine months. Cover individual cloves with 8 cm (3 in.) of soil, pointy side up, 16 cm (8 in.) apart. Purchase seed garlic OR use organic garlic grown in B.C. Beefier cloves will produce bigger heads next summer; imported garlic, usually from China, does not produce well – avoid using this kind.. Plant broad beans in good soil in sun through mid-November, covering with 8 cm (3 in.) of soil, and enjoy them late May to mid-June! Their fragrant blossoms attract beneficial insects. They may also attract aphids which is not a bad thing if you are fond of nasturtiums! Some gardeners use broad beans as ‘trap crops’, in fact, to lure aphids. Though the pods get a bit black and unsightly, you can still eat the beans! Continue to save seeds if they are not waterlogged or rotted. Store in clearly labeled jars or containers, with a silica dessicant pak (“do not eat”!) to keep them dry. Some folks advocate germenting OP (open-pollinated) tomato seeds in water for a few days until a scum forms at the top. Seeds that float to the bottom may be saved after drying. Other folks like Christina Beaudoins (head of the Slow Food convivium in Vancouver) simply put seeds on paper towels like her father does, lets them dry, then sprouts the seed paper towel and all, in spring. If you have tomatoes in the garden that are not ripe and haven’t succumbed to blight or split in the rain, try harvesting the entire plant and hanging it upside down by the roots in a cool room. The tomatoes may ripen. Or, pick them and wrap individually in newspaper, and store in a box in a cool place! Or, make fried green tomatoes – always delicious. Last chance to harvest squash and pumpkins before hard frost. It’s mostly too late now to cure outdoors, so choose a warm, dry location inside. Cool greenhouses work well too. To prevent rot and increase storage life, add 15 mL (1 Tbsp.) of bleach to 500 mL (2 cups) water and using a rag, coat the squash skin well. Store in a cool cellar or in a dry basement. Don’t forget to make butternut squash lasagna with béchamel sauce! Extend the fall veggie season using row cover or check out the “hoop and plastic” system. This can give you an early start in spring too, for lettuce, Asian and leafy greens. Partly remove plastic on sunny days to promote good air circulation. Plant fall rye for “green manure” in zones 7 and 8 until mid-October. It’s important to chop/incorporate into soil while the stems are still tender, before lignin (tough fibre) forms in stems in early spring. After you have incorporated your fall rye, avoid planting small seeds (like arugula, Asian greens or lettuce) in that part of the garden for a month, as the rye contains a growth inhibitor. Bigger seeds like peas or broad beans will be fine. Indoor plants Start Amaryllis in time for Christmas, and force hyacinth and other bulbs in the fridge (nursery centres can tell you how to do this!) for earliest blooming. Bring Christmas cactus indoors before hard frost – giving them a good chill brings on their beautiful flowers. Avoid overwatering – they are epiphytes and don’t need a lot of water in their roots. Houseplants hardly need water, depending on indoor conditions, until mid-February when active growth begins. Give them a break from fertilizer ‘til spring as well. A daily spritzing of water on all your houseplants will discourage spider mite and other critters in your forced-air heated home. Bulbs Dig up tender summer-flowering bulbs, shake off soil, and allow them to dry in a place with good air circulation. Store in boxes with torn newspapers, or in a bit of peat moss in a place where it won’t freeze. When frost knocks down your beautiful dahlias, lift them gently with a garden fork. Keep tubers dry by storing in dry sand, vermiculite, or shredded paper. Keep the label with the tuber – you did label them, right? ☺ Finish planting spring bulbs by Hallowe’en. It’s no fun digging in wet soil and freezing your hands. For big bang for your buck, try planting a lot of large purple Allium somewhere unexpected. They are long-lasting in the garden, attract beneficial insects, and look good at all stages of life including “dried”. If you like large, long-stemmed showy tulips that last a while in the garden, try “Pink Impression”. Plant in drifts, and don’t skimp – you’ll be ecstatic as they put on a most impressive show in spring! Tulips need some sun, but narcissus can thrive in shade though they’ll bloom a little later. Plant Crocus tommasinianus (“tommies”) in your lawn for a natural look. Daffodils will also naturalize in the grass. Fruit Trees Harvest late apples. Clean all fallen fruit from under the tree to avoid harbouring disease and pests that will re-emerge in spring. Purchase “whips” or young fruit trees while dormant October through February. Plant as long as ground can be worked. Perennials Consider the fall-planted perennial – take a look in your local garden centre to see what’s available, many at deep discounts. By next season, they’ll double in size. If you can, buy perennials in threes at least. You’ll be glad you did, especially if you want the English country garden effect. Some candidates may look rough now but will come back strong next season:

  • Iris (any kind)
  • Achillea (yarrow)
  • Echinacea (coneflower)
  • Helleborus sp. (hellebore)
  • Aster frikartii ‘Monch’
  • Sedum
  • Euphorbia
  • Heuchera
  • Herbaceous (they die back then re-emerge) grasses such as Hakonechloa
  • Carex and other evergreen grasses
  • Tough herbs such as thyme, oregano and lavender. It’s risky to plant Rosemary now unless you have an extremely sheltered area.

You may find some deeply-discounted pots which seem barely alive – check to see if they have some roots. Most will be spring bloomers:

  • Doronicum (leopard’s bane)
  • Polemonium (jacob’s ladder)
  • Pulmonaria (lungwort)
  • Brunnera macrophylla
  • Tiarella
  • Paeonia (peony)
  • Papaver orientalis (oriental poppy)
  • Corydalis sp.

When you are planting and digging in the soil, if you are so inclined, you can tuck in some spring bulbs at the same time. Around the Garden Don’t forget plants close to the house or under rooflines. When you expect frost, water well to insulate the roots. If it snows, move your container plants into the weather – snow is a great insulator. Winterize your pond. Continue to feed your fish until the water temperature is 10°C (50°F), then stop feeding them until the water has warmed to 10°C (50°F) in spring. Move all hardy plants to the deepest part of the pond. Empty your hose to avoid frost damage. Open or remove the nozzle before you roll up your hose. As the water drains, the hose becomes flexible, lighter and much easier to handle. Remember to drain irrigation lines. Protect container plantings. In coastal (rainy) gardens, remove the dish or plate from under containers to prevent standing water; alternately, bring containers under eaves. Remember to keep evergreens in containers well watered in dry spells. This goes double if it’s below freezing. Even if it seems to be raining cats and dogs, the moisture may fail to penetrate newly-planted areas, especially coniferous hedges. It’s a good idea to carefully water to keep roots evenly moist, especially during the first year after planting when the plant material is vulnerable. Continue to clear away and compost dead plant material. Anything that looks diseased needs to go in the garbage can. Do not compost diseased tomato plants, Brassica family (cabbage etc.) or any other veggies that may be diseased. In fall and winter, your compost pile will cool off and not produce a lot of heat. That’s fine – it will start again in early spring. Keep faithfully adding kitchen waste, layering with leaves, adding straw, etc. If you have horse or other animal manure, it wouldn’t hurt to add a layer or two into the compost to help it stay warm. Remember to alternate layers of carbon (“dry” – leaves, shredded paper, newspaper, hay) with nitrogen (wet – kitchen waste, fresh grass clippings). Lightly prune roses back if you have not done so. Only remove deadwood, tiny and/or crossing branches. Mulch with SeaSoil, soil, or bark mulch. Make sure roses aren’t “rocking and rolling” in fall and winter winds by heeling them in well. Major pruning will be done in early spring. Store fertilizers high and dry in their original containers in a ventilated area, away from where you regularly breathe. Retaining original containers is a good idea, or label clearly. Insulate the greenhouse. If your greenhouse is exposed to cooling winds or extreme cold, you can improve the heat retention by insulating the walls with a layer of bubble wrap. You can also bring the warm air lower and nearer the plants by using poly to create a false ceiling. Take good care of your garden tools and they’ll last a long time. Sharpen pruners, clean up spades and other tools using emery cloth, apply a light coating of oil, wipe, and keep them in a dry place. Lastly, don’t clean up your garden too much. Certain insects and other beneficial critters need places to hide and be safe until spring. You’ll make your garden healthier and more biodiverse by thinking about their welfare now!