October Gardening Tips for the Northeast

Cool temperatures make time spent in the garden enjoyable. Roll up your sleeves and dig into fall chores.


Think Spring with Bulbs

Start planting spring-flowering bulbs about midmonth. Continue planting until mid-November, and even longer if soil isn't frozen. Follow these tips for success.

  • Try something new: Plant a river of grape hyacinths through a bed. Create large daffodil groupings, especially along fences or edges of a yard. Tuck Siberian squill into a section of lawn for naturalizing.
  • Add bulb fertilizer to planting holes, not bonemeal.
  • Protect bulbs from burrowing creatures by encasing them in poultry wire cages.
  • Outwit hungry squirrels by soaking bulbs in repellent or planting through established groundcovers.
  • Buy discounted bulbs for an economical way to stage large drifts of color. Cull bulbs carefully, tossing any that have soft spots. Tulips missing their outer covering are okay to plant, as long as bulbs are firm.
  • Plant bulbs in pots for forcing into flower indoors. Plan 14-16 weeks of cold (41-48 degrees F), plus two to three weeks at room temperature before flowering. Plant bulbs now for January color. Try forcing hyacinth, crocus, tulip, and daffodil.
  • Tuck early-blooming bulbs, such as crocus, Siberian squill, and miniature iris, into planting beds where they'll be visible from indoors. Other great spots are near entries and driveways.

Bulb planting tips.

Beautiful bulb combinations.

Deal with Autumn Leaves

Clean up fallen leaves -- don't ignore them. Allowing leaves to accumulate on grass can kill it. Piled on sidewalks, decks, and driveways, fallen leaves create slippery footing and can stain.

  • Time raking or mowing to deal with leaves before rains arrive and mat them together.
  • Use a mulching blade to chop leaves finely and let them decompose into the lawn.
  • Put fall leaves to work by adding them to your compost pile. Chopping them into pieces with a leaf vacuum or lawn mower speeds up decomposition and prevents matting.
  • Cover water gardens with plastic mesh to keep leaves from tumbling in.
  • Chopped autumn leaves make wonderful mulch piled around perennials or heaped onto empty vegetable beds.
  • If you need to dispose of limbs, branches, and other woody stems, check with neighbors and see if they also have disposable material. You can all rent a chipper/shredder together for a weekend and reduce the woody material to mulch.
Overwintering Houseplants

Move most tropical houseplants indoors for winter when temperatures stay below 50 degrees F. Plants such as fuchsia and holiday cactus can stay outdoors until nights remain in the 40s.

  • When shifting houseplants indoors, tend to these tasks to make the transition easier -- on both you and your plants: Clean the soil surface, removing sprouted weeds and fallen leaves; trim them back by about half before moving indoors; and use a hand truck or dolly to make light work of moving larger plants.
  • Dislodge insects from foliage with a gentle spray from the garden hose. Angle spray to reach beneath leaves.
  • Submerge small plants in water for 15 minutes. Insects will flee hiding places and drown. Don't use this treatment for cacti, succulents, or plants that are already winter-dormant.
  • With larger potted plants, dunk the base of the pot into a shallow tub of water to evict insects that have set up housekeeping in soil. Or simply spray a pesticide into drainage holes.
  • After using treatments that soak soil, allow soil to dry outside for a few days before moving plants indoors.
  • Have spaces prepared inside to receive plants. Group plants in a room where you can shut off the heat to create a cooler environment. This reduces watering needs and pest problems.
Seasonal Chores
  • Drain and coil hoses before they freeze. Store in a garden shed, garage, or basement for winter. If you must store your hose outdoors, remove watering wands and nozzles to store indoors.
  • Close shut-off valves for exterior faucets. Open outdoor faucets to drain. Close frost-free faucets for winter; leave other faucets slightly open.
  • Dig tender bulbs after foliage freezes. This includes canna, elephant ears, dahlia, gladiolus, and calla lily.
  • Seal cracks and crevices around the house to keep overwintering insects or small rodents out. Don't forget to check seals where utility lines enter and exit your home.
  • Spray glyphosate on difficult to kill plants, such as curly dock, bamboo, poison ivy, or multiflora rose. Plants will transport the chemical to roots, which could produce a root-killing effect on these invasive plants.
  • Keep plant material located a few feet away from the house to limit hiding places for insects and mice, which could wind up indoors for winter.
October Tree and Shrub Care
  • Shorter days and falling temperatures trigger woody trees and shrubs to prepare for dormancy. Avoid pruning, which causes new growth. It's okay to prune storm-damaged or dead branches.
  • Gradually reduce watering on landscape plants, unless rains are scarce. If drought settles in prior to the ground freezing, you need to keep watering, especially trees, shrubs, or perennials that you planted this year.
  • Continue to plant trees and shrubs. Roots will settle in and grow until the ground freezes.

Properly plant a tree.

Fall Lawn Care
  • Fertilize cool-season lawns. Aim to deliver 1/2-1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet.
  • Fall is a great time to reseed problem areas in the lawn. You can also overseed to help thicken thin areas.
  • Apply herbicides to control weeds. Choose broadleaf weed control for perennial weeds such as dandelions, clover, or plantain. Use a preemergent herbicide for fall-germinating weeds, such as henbit or chickweed.
  • Core aerate cool-season grass. A core aerator actually pulls out a plug of soil and drops it on the lawn. The hole creates easy access for needed air, water, and fertilizer to connect with grass roots. If you plan to aerate and overseed, aerate first.

Weed identification guide.

Fall lawn-care secrets.

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