October: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Of course, it’s October! It happens every year, although I would not have been surprised if it did not happen this year (or if November preceded it). It has been an exceptionally weird year. September was … well, exactly. September was. We did get some non-tropical rain as well as some of the tropical stuff. There were hurricanes, remnants of hurricanes and hundreds-of-miles-off-shore-and-still-buried-NC-12-with-sand-and-salt-water hurricanes. There are horrendous wildfires in the west and the ever-present life altering Covid-19. I am not even going to start on the toxic political climate.

On a lighter note, the accidental cottage garden looks better than it did at the beginning of September (see photos below). (Ain’t rain wonderful?) The plantings along the driveway don’t get as much sun since the equinox, so they don’t have much to offer right now. There are a couple of asters (Symphyotrichum puniceum and Aster novea-angliae), a lone cock’s comb (Celosia plumosa) and some hardy ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum). Along the gable end, the galardia (Galardia puchella) and lance leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) are still putting on a show. In the more intentional (less accidental?) part of the garden the spreading mum (Chrysantemum x unknown), a wand flower (Guara lindheimeri) and a stonecrop (Hylotelephium “Herbstsfreude” ‘Autumn Joy’) lighten up the front of the rampant tomato plants. BTW, the stonecrop is a cross-genus hybrid cross between Sedum telephium and a species of ice plant, Hylotelephium spectabile.  (The preceding trivia is presented for the benefit of your erudition at no extra charge.)

Photos – Clockwise from upper right: Sedum autumn joy, chrysanthemum and guara, hardy ageratum, galatia and coreopsis. Credit G. Crispell.

“Yo, Dude! Quit your yammering and tell the people what to do in the garden this month.” Oh, yeah.  Right. Here ya go, y’all. Enjoy October.

– Not much to do here unless you are planting spring flowering bulbs. Should that be the case, incorporate a little balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or equivalent) into the soil as you plant.
– Store any leftover fertilizer in a dry place for the winter.

– Plant the above-mentioned spring flowering bulbs (E.g. hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, crocuses, etc.).
– Pansies! Those plucky members of the Viola genus who can brighten up a gray winter day should be on everyone’s list unless, of course, there are deer nearby. Apparently, the pansies make a great dessert after a meal of azalea branches. Plant them soon as the more established they are when it gets cold the better able they will be to withstand the cold.
– “Fall is for planting.”  It’s not just a slogan from the nursery industry. It is gospel. The very best time to plant any new landscape plants you have been planning for is now.
– Peonies can be planted or transplanted now.
– In the vegetable garden consider a nitrogen fixing cover crop like red clover, hairy vetch or winter rye.  This will help keep down the weeds and add nitrogen to the soil. In the spring just till it into the soil to add nutrients and organic matter.
– If you happen to be one of the foresighted people who have a cold frame* now is the appropriate time to plant a winter’s worth of salad. Lettuce, green onions, radishes, carrots, spinach and other leafy greens will grace your salad bowl all winter if planted now.

– Once frost (It’s October; It is going to frost!) has finished the decimation of the perennial garden cut off all the dead tops and throw them on the compost pile.
– Root prune* any trees or plants you plan on moving in the spring.

Unless you have a lace bug problem it is time to clean up and winterize the sprayer and store the pesticides in a secured dry location that will not freeze. As to the lace bugs they are active whenever the leaf surface temperature is warm enough (i.e. whenever the sun shines on the leaves).  A horticultural oil spray can be helpful in controlling both feeding adults and egg stages.

Lawn Care*
– Maintain adequate moisture levels for any newly seeded or sodded lawns. 
– Avoid leaf buildup on lawns.
– Tall fescue and bluegrass (not the fiddlin’ kind) can still be planted in October.

– Keep an eye on any new cuttings in the cold frame (the one without the salad greens in it). They should be checked at least twice a month and watered as needed.
– If you are a gardener lucky enough to be able to grow rhubarb now is the time to dig and divide it.

Other stuff to do that will keep you outdoors while the leaves turn color

Take soil samples while they are still FREE. NCDOA will charge for them from November to April. Supplies are available for curbside pickup at the back of the Extension office, 721 Foster Street.

Put those raked or blown leaves into the compost bin or till them into the veggie garden.

Clean, fill and put out the bird feeders.

Dig and store (cool, dark, dry) tender summer flowering bulbs (E.g. gladioli, dahlia, caladium) before frost.

Clean up, lubricate and otherwise prepare lawn and garden equipment for its long winter’s rest.

A mea culpa. This writer neglected to inform you that it is time to band trees that are susceptible to canker worm invasions. This involves wrapping and securing the trunk with a coarse material like burlap or quilt batting about four or five feet above the ground. That in turn is wrapped with a corrugated paper wrap that is then covered with the stickiest gooeyest stuff you’ve ever played with. All these materials are available at some nursery/garden centers one of which is very proximal to the Durham Extension office.

For a fun activity now that will yield fresh living flowers in the bleak mid-winter try your hand at forcing spring flowering bulbs. Plant bulbs in pots early in October and place them in the refrigerator. In 12 weeks bring them out into the house and watch them grow and bloom. Kids love it.

Further Reading

Root pruning will encourage the plant to produce a flush of new feeder roots. The goal is to allow the plant to develop new feeder roots within the zone of the future root ball that will be moved. Learn more: https://extension.psu.edu/transplanting-or-moving-trees-and-shrubs-in-the-landscape

Fall Lawn Care: Evaluate before you Renovate https://www.trianglegardener.com/fall-lawn-care-tip-evaluate-before-you-renovate/

How to Build and Maintain a Cold Frame https://www.hws.edu/fli/pdf/cold_frame.pdf