October Gardening Tips for the Midwest
Falling temperatures and falling leaves keep gardeners busy this month as they begin wrapping up the season.
Plant Spring Bulbs
Plant bulbs now for a spectacular flower show next spring. You can safely plant bulbs until mid-November and even beyond that if the ground isn't frozen. But it's more pleasant to work outdoors this month, before temperatures take their seasonal nosedive.
Get more out of your bulb plantings by trying some of these ideas:
- Work bulb fertilizer into soil at the base of planting holes.
- Surround bulbs with wire cages if you have a problem with voles, moles, chipmunks, or other burrowing critters.
- Hide bulbs from digging squirrels by planting them into established groundcovers. You can also treat bulbs with repellent that squirrels find distasteful.
- Save money on bulbs by scooping up end-of-season markdowns. Throw away any bulbs that are rotting or have soft spots. If tulips lack a brown outer wrapping, they're still safe to plant, as long as bulbs remain firm.
- Plant bulbs for forcing to enjoy indoor blooms. Bulbs need 14 to 16 weeks of cold (41-48 degrees F), followed by two to three weeks at room temperature before flowers appear. Bulbs planted now will flower early in the coming year. Good choices include daffodil, tulip, hyacinth, and crocus.
Frost: The Big Chill
If frost hasn't already arrived, it's on the way. Stay tuned to weather forecasts, especially if you have plantings or produce you want to protect.
Prolong the growing season for plants by tossing a sheet or other nonplastic material over plants when frost is predicted. Remove covers in the morning, after the sun has warmed the air. If you have vegetables or annuals you want to protect for an extended period, invest in frost blankets, which you anchor over plants. The blanket allows water and sunlight to reach plants.
Get tomatoes out of the garden when temperatures fall below 50 degrees F. At this point, fruit stops ripening. Ripen tomatoes indoors. Stored at 70 degrees F, green tomatoes ripen in about two weeks; at 55 degrees F, they need roughly four weeks.
Your October To-Do List
Leaves. Keep up with leaves falling onto the lawn and hard surfaces. Use a mulching blade to mow over leaves and let bits decompose into the lawn. Add a bag to your mower and gather leaves as you mow, tossing chopped pieces onto the compost pile or around perennials as mulch.
Seeds. Collect seeds from plants such as four o'clocks, cleome, and morning glory. Clip whole flower heads of cosmos, zinnia, and Tithonia and dry them on screens. Remove seeds from dried flower heads, and store in a cool, dry place in tightly sealed containers.
Ponds. Continue to feed fish in water gardens as long as they remain active. Keep falling leaves out of water by stretching a net across the surface.
Stop Disease. Destroy -- do not compost -- diseased leaves of plants: rose leaves with black spot, hollyhock leaves with rust, and all vegetable plant leaves with fungal diseases (tomatoes, squash vines, etc.).
Prevent Weeds. Spray glyphosate on weedy plants that are tough to kill. Candidates include dandelion, curly dock, bamboo, and poison ivy. In fall, plants will shift the chemical from leaves to roots, which may kill these plants at the roots.
Dealing with Tender Plants
- Dig tender bulbs after foliage freezes. This includes canna, elephant ears, dahlia, gladiolus, and calla lily.
- Take cuttings of pineapple sage, basil, coleus, and geraniums that you want to have for next year.
- Lift tropical plants, such as hibiscus and angel's trumpet, from beds and shift into pots for winter storage in an unheated room.
- Bring tropical houseplants indoors when temperatures remain below 50 degrees F.
- Prune plants before bringing them indoors. Cut plants back by at least half. Pruning encourages new growth that adapts to the indoor conditions, so you have less leaf loss.
- Remove insects on foliage by spraying leaves with a garden hose. Be sure to spray directly beneath leaves -- lots of insects like to hide there. Also, watch for insects that have nestled in drainage holes of pots by submerging the bottom half of pots in water for 15 minutes.
Test Garden Tip: Indoors, store plants in a sunny room that allows you to close off heat for the winter. This will reduce heating bills, watering chores, and pest outbreaks.
Planting. It's safe to plant trees and shrubs until the ground freezes. Roots will continue to grow as long as the ground isn't frozen.
Pruning. Avoid pruning roses, shrubs, and evergreens this late in the year. Cutting plants now encourages new growth to emerge that will suffer winter damage, since it won't have time to harden off before cold weather arrives.
Note: It's okay to remove dead branches on plants, along with any storm-damaged limbs.
Watering. If summer was on the dry side, water perennials, shrubs, and trees that were planted in the last 12 months. Newly planted perennials may die during their first winter because they lack sufficient moisture during their first year of growth.
Lawn Care. If grass is growing, keep mowing. Reseed bare spots in your lawn and overseed thin areas. Or, for an even better start to your lawn in spring, aerate cool-season grass using a core aerator, which yanks a plug of soil from the lawn. The resulting hole allows air, water, and fertilizer direct access to grass roots. If aerating and overseeding are on your fall to-do list, aerate first.
Weeds. Tackle weeds with herbicides. Broadleaf weed control will kill perennial weeds (dandelions, plantain, clover, etc.). Preemergent herbicides stop fall-germinating weeds (henbit, chickweed, etc.).