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.

 
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