October To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

Bold colors and striking flowers of the tough-as-nails marigolds (Tagetes sp.) in the fall ACG. (Image credit: Gary Crispell)

I reckon we have seen the last of September and quite possibly the last of the 90-degree days.  So, I have mixed feelings about all that.  Being a devotee of the ancient Egyptian god, Ra, I rather like a temperature in the nineties.  Being a gardener, I prefer a little more rain a lot more regularly.  Camelot anyone? 

The Accidental Cottage Garden (ACG) would agree with the more rain more often thing.  It is sadder than “normal” (which is currently undergoing a redefinition).  Most of the perennials have given up and gone into early hibernation.  The only three left are the oft mentioned Chrysanthemum x ‘-Don’t-Have-A-Clue,’ hardy ageratum or blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum or Eupatorium coelestinum–take your pick), and gallardia (Gallardia pulchella).  The marigolds (Tagetes x hybrid) and zinnias (Zinnia elegans ‘Canary’) have come back after some rain and much needed dead heading. The dependable sedum (Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’ AUTUMN JOY) is showing off with deep red blooms. And that’s all, folks.

Despite the dry conditions, fall bloomers like (top left to right) chrysanthemum, hardy ageratum, and (bottom) sedum in the ACG continue to brighten up the place. (Image credit: Gary Crispell)

The gardening season starts to wind down in October unless you are doing some extensive landscaping.  So, here’s the list of stuff to keep you off the streets for another month.


Keep leaves from accumulating on newly seeded or overseeded lawns.

Keep those same lawns moist until germination then be sure they get 1” of water per week, ½” per watering.

Continue mowing cool season lawns (fescue, bluegrass, perennial rye) at 3 ½” to 4”.


We are essentially done here except for spring-flowering bulbs (daffodils, tulips, crocuses, etc.).  Incorporate a little balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or equivalent) into the soil in and around the planting hole.

Store leftover fertilizer in a dry place for the winter.


FALL IS FOR PLANTING!  It’s the truth in this part of the world.  It is especially true for containerized and B&B (balled and burlapped) nursery material (trees and shrubs).  Planting them now gives them the opportunity to grow sufficient roots to withstand our now inevitable summer dry spells.

Want some color through the winter?  Think pansies.  This hardy member of the Viola genus will cheerily grace your yard with an almost endless display of delightful color throughout the winter.  The sooner you plant them the more able they will be to survive the coldest North Carolina nights.  One caveat; deer find them irresistible.  They’re like dessert after a hearty meal of azaleas.

Spring-flowering bulbs should be planted this month.  They need a period of cold before sprouting.

Peonies can be planted/transplanted now.

 If you are not planting a fall veggie garden, consider planting a cover crop such as red clover (Trifolium pratense) or winter rye (Secale cereale).  These plants are nitrogen-fixing (They add nitrogen to the soil) and can be tilled in in the spring.  Win, win, win.

Do you have a cold frame?  Now is the ideal time to plant a salad garden to keep you in greens all winter.  Leaf lettuces, green onions, spinach, radishes & carrots will keep you eating healthy ‘til spring.


Wait until after a killer frost (which used to come in October, but may no longer arrive until November).  Climate change.  Adapt or find a good therapist. 

After said frost it will be time to finish cleaning out the perennial garden.  Cut them back to an appropriate height which may be all the way to the ground.  Some plants have a “best” height and sometimes you get to decide (or guess).

Root prune any shrubs or trees that you want to move in the spring.


Hopefully by now most of the pests have gone into overwinter mode.  There are a couple that you can still do battle with.  Lace bugs, especially on azaleas and pyracantha, can be active all winter whenever the leaf surface temperature suits them.  The other treatable pests are the scale insects found most often on euonymus and camellias, though they will occasionally find other plants to their liking.  I had some on a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) in a previous garden.  Both of these pests can be treated with a horticultural oil that will smother all the stages of their life cycle.


Are you starting new plants from cuttings?  Be sure to check them at least twice a month for overall health and vigor.  Water as needed.  (That’s PRN for the medical gardeners out there.)

If you are one of the fortunate few with a rhubarb patch now is a good time to divide the plants.  It really prefers colder climes than USDA Zone 7.  Rhubarb is a favorite in this house, but ain’t no way we’re movin’ north far enough to grow it.  Been there.  Done that and did NOT get the tee shirt.


Besides snow skiing and outdoor ice hockey, what isn’t appropriate for a delightful October day?  Ok, I’ll limit the list to gardening activities (mostly).

Make a compost pile out of the inevitable leaf collection on your yard.  The landfill doesn’t need them.

GET A FREE SOIL SAMPLE NOW! (For information on soil testing, go to https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/2020/05/nows-the-perfect-time-to-test-your-soil/ )There is a monetary charge for them between November and April.

Clean and fill bird feeders.

Clean out any unoccupied bird houses to get them ready for winter boarders.

Dig up tender summer-flowering bulbs (gladiolas, dahlias, caladiums, etc.) and store them in a cool dark place where random rodents can’t access them.

Clean and lubricate lawn and garden equipment that won’t be used again until next season.

Go for a hike in the woods.  The Eno River is especially lovely in the fall.

Fire pits and s’mores come to mind.  (I said mostly garden stuff.)

Find some kids and carve pumpkins (around the fire pit with s’mores and hot chocolate).

Enjoy the crispness of October ‘cause it’ll be cold soon.

Happy October, y’all!


Resources and Additional Information

Clemson University’s Home and Information Garden Center’s factsheet on pansies and Johnny jump-ups offers information on planting, care, and variety selection

For a comprehensive look at planting spring-blooming bulbs, see the online version of the The North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook


Penn State Extension’s “Tips for Planting Cover Crops in Home Gardens” provides a great overview


For tips on how to clean your bird feeders and keep them disease free, consult the link from National Audubon Society


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