October To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

Welcome to the 4th quarter of 2023, a.k.a. October. I have mixed feelings about October. October has some delightfully warm days, but it also is the harbinger of less delightful days to come – first frost, cold rain, and another anniversary of my first day out of the womb. On the bright side, there’s less humidity, awe-inspiring leaf color, and Halloween! I’ll not enter the pumpkin spice debate.

The Accidental Cottage Garden (ACG) is rather sad looking. The perennials have mostly given up the ghost. There are a couple of gallardia (G. pulchella) that will not give in to any drought whatsoever. Tough plants, those. The balloon flower (Platycodon grandifloris) keeps popping out random blooms as does the purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea). 

The vast majority of the color in the garden now is provided by the annuals. There are zinnias (Z. elegans), several types of marigolds (Tagetes sps.), and a random cosmos (C. bipinnata, C. sulphureus) or two. All these are quite drought hardy as I don’t water the ACG until I see the guy with the black cloak and scythe lurking around, similarly attired trick-or-treaters withstanding.

Oh!  I just remembered, which itself is becoming a cause for celebration. This is supposed to be a gardening calendar blog post.  Who knew?  That being the case, let us hurry to the garden.


Newly seeded lawn areas need adequate moisture to thrive. About one inch per week is usually enough unless it is really hot and dry. Make at least two applications per week that add up to one inch. Tall fescue and bluegrass (turf-type, not what you’ll find at the IBMA in Raleigh) seed can still be planted. Avoid leaf build-up on any lawn, especially newly seeded ones.


Only fertilize spring-flowering bulbs as you plant them – nothing else.  Just sprinkle a little bit of a balanced (10-10-10 or equivalent) in the planting hole before inserting the bulb. Store left over fertilizer in an airtight container and in a cool dry place for the winter.

October can be a great time to plant spring flowering bulbs. Consider adding a bit of balanced fertilizer to the hole when planting. Image Credits, left to right: Lucy Bradley CC-BY-SA 2.0, Cathy DeWitt CC BY 4.0


Let me reiterate, “Fall is for planting!”  That’s not just a catchy slogan for the green industry.  It’s for real.  The absolute very best time to plant most landscape plants and trees is “raht now, y’all.”  Planting in the autumn lets the plants establish a root system that will hopefully get them through the inevitable summer droughty periods.  Head to the nearest (or not so nearest) nursery/garden center (preferably not a big box), pick up those plants you’ve desired, and stick ‘em in the ground. Think natives first.  They are best adapted to our above and below ground environments.

Plant pansies!  In the ground, in pots, wherever you want to be inspired by a bit of color in the middle of a drab winter landscape. Planting them early will give them the best chance of surviving the coldest winter nights. You will, however, need to protect them from Bambi and his relatives.  Pansies are a deer’s version of chocolate. They may be dessert, but sometimes they eat them first.  After all, life can be short. Peonies can also still be planted/transplanted.

Native plants like New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) benefit from autumn planting. Image Credit: H. Zell CC BY-SA 3.0

Consider a cover crop for your vegetable garden. Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum), hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), or winter rye (Secale cereale) will replenish the soil with nutrients, keep the soil covered and contribute to carbon sequestering. Just don’t till the soil deeply.

If you have a cold frame that isn’t full of cuttings (more about them in a minute), you can seed a winter salad garden and surprise everybody at your New Year’s Eve party with fresh veggies from YOUR garden. Lettuces, carrots, spinach, kale, green onions, radishes, other leafy greens can all be planted now.


Once it frosts, (It is going to frost. This is October in the Piedmont, after all) the perennial garden will be history for another season. Cut off all the stems and seed heads and toss them on the compost heap. Root prune any plants you plan to move in the spring.


After it frosts about the only garden pests still active will be lace bugs on azaleas and pyracantha and scale on euonymus and camellias. Both can be treated with a dose of horticultural oil.  That should put a major crimp in their lifestyle not to mention their life cycle. After that you can clean and put away the spray equipment for another season.


Stay aware of what’s happening in the cutting cold frame (Remember?  The other cold frame has veggies in it now). Periodic watering and general wellness checks are warranted Should you be fortunate enough to be able to grow rhubarb, dig and divide it now, and keep me in mind come harvest.


  • Take SOIL SAMPLES NOW.  They are FREE through November.  Otherwise, you can wait until April when they are free again or pay NCDOA.  It is one of the more important things you can do to ensure a successful garden.
  • Put all of your leaf litter into compost.  Just like grass clippings, they don’t belong in the landfill.
  • Clean up and refill your birdfeeders, and clean out any bird houses and prepare them for winter boarders.  And please don’t raise the rent.  Keep bird housing affordable.
  • Dig and store tender summer bulbs, tubers, corms such as dahlias, gladioli, caladium, etc. and store them in a clean, dry, cool, dark place.
  • Get out the fire pit and gather some dry firewood.
  • Get some graham crackers, chocolate bars and marshmallows.  You know why.
  • Using the above, make something tasty and have fun staying warm. Hot chocolate would also be appropriate.
  • Go trick or treating with somebody’s kids.  It’s amazing.  You get to interact with the kids, who are usually astoundingly smart, and you get to meet new friends along the way.  Win, win.
  • Dig into October (literally) and Happy Halloween!

Resources and Additional Information

Planting Fall seeding of Cool-Season Grasses: https://www.turffiles.ncsu.edu/2023/08/it-is-almost-time-for-fall-seeding-of-cool-season-grasses/

Clemson University’s Home and Information Garden Center’s factsheet on pansies and Johnny jump-ups offers information on planting, care, and variety selection: https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/pansies-and-johnny-jump-ups/embed/#?secret=mZDjYbyA3P#?secret=NtPAmwuMe9

For a comprehensive look at planting spring-blooming bulbs, see the online version of the The North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/10-herbaceous-ornamentals#spring

Penn State Extension’s “Tips for Planting Cover Crops in Home Gardens” provides a great overview: https://extension.psu.edu/tips-for-planting-cover-crops-in-home-gardens

For tips on how to clean your bird feeders and keep them disease free, consult the link from National Audubon Society: https://www.audubon.org/news/three-easy-important-ways-keep-your-bird-feeder-disease-free

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