October Gardening Tips for the Pacific Northwest

It's time to get busy in the garden -- wrapping up, planting, and preparing -- before winter rains or snow begin.


Frost

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Higher elevations have likely had frost already. Lower elevations will experience the cold snap this month. Check weather forecasts daily to stay on top of frost warnings.

If you want plants to survive frost, throw a sheet, piece of cardboard, or other material (except plastic) over plants for the duration of the warning. Don't remove covers too early in the morning. Wait until air warms to avoid damaging plants with an early-morning cold blast.

Consider using a frost blanket for food crops or cutting gardens. These spun polyester or plastic coverings can extend the growing season up to one month. You could be picking fresh greens for Christmas dinner in some locations. A frost blanket is installed as a semipermanent covering. You lift it only to harvest plants. It allows water and light to pass through to plants, but keeps frost out.

Pumpkins should never experience frost, especially if you plan to store them over winter. Harvest pumpkins and winter squash before frost threatens, cutting stems to allow a 1- to 2-inch portion attached to fruit.

Test Garden Tip: You don't have to harvest root crops before frost. These underground goodies can stay in place until you're ready to serve them. Remove green leaves and then pile straw, soil, or mulch over the planting area. Doing this can extend the harvest as much as 30 days. Try this on carrots, turnips, potatoes, beets, or parsnips.

Fall Chores

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Ponds: Continue to feed fish as long as they remain active. Get out heaters for ponds. Check to make sure they work properly. Keep the water clean by removing any fallen leaves daily or keeping them out altogether by placing a net over the water.

Get Ready for Birds: Dig out bird feeders. Clean, fill, and hang them now, when birds are starting to establish winter feeding grounds. If you don't have one, invest in a birdbath heater or heated birdbath. And now is ideal for taking down birdhouses and giving them a good cleaning. Rubber gloves provide effective protection for removing nesting material. Ensure parasites and diseases aren't overwintering in houses by rinsing them with a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.

Fall Cleanup

Autumn is the right time to do some serious cleaning in the garden. Every moment you spend cleaning now translates into time saved next spring. You'll save time because cleaning will eliminate weeds and overwintering diseases and pests.

Tackle these three general cleanup tasks every year:

1. Pull annuals when they're finished, whether they're planted in beds or pots.

2. Start cutting perennials during fall. If your area receives a killing frost, start the pruning after that. Try to get this job done before rains begin. Leave 3-inch stubs in place to catch leaves for winter insulation. Don't cut down perennials that dress the garden with winter interest, such as ornamental grass, 'Autumn Joy' sedum, yarrow, and coneflower.

3. Prune dead or storm-damaged branches on shrubs or trees.

Weeds

Cover paths between raised beds with leaves, mulch, or cardboard topped with mulch to deter weeds next spring.

Eliminate spring weeds by blanketing empty vegetable beds with chopped leaves, mulch, or newspaper topped with either of those materials. Or plant a winter cover crop.

Pests and Diseases

Deal with slugs this fall as new eggs begin to hatch in the cooler weather. Clean up areas slugs hide: weed piles, boards, or stacked pots. If beds are edged with timbers -- a natural hiding place for slugs -- continuously sprinkle slug bait beside the wood.

Gather fallen fruit from beneath trees and dispose of it, in case it's harboring disease organisms or pests.

Do not add leaves of diseased plants to a compost pile that doesn't get hot. Things to avoid include hollyhock with rust, rose with black spot, and vegetables with fungus or blight problems. Destroy these leaves or dispose of them through a municipal yard waste program.

Landscape Chores: Planting

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It's safe to plant deciduous trees and shrubs all winter long if soil remains workable. Otherwise, try to wrap up planting chores, especially with evergreen trees and shrubs, this month.

Dig and divide perennials that are overcrowded. This is also a great time to add new perennials to the landscape.

Plant garlic, tucking cloves 3- to 4-inches deep.

Irrigation in October

Keep watering new additions to the landscape (planted in the last 12 months). Drought causes many plants to die during their first winter.

Continue to irrigate evergreens, especially Oregon grape and rhododendron. These plants need to go into winter well-watered to prevent winter burn on leaves and needles.

Drain and/or blow out your irrigation system to prevent winter freezing.

Digging in the Garden

Once frost strikes tender bulb crops such as dahlia, tuberous begonia, or gladiolus, dig the bulbs. Dry them in the sun for a few days before packing them in dry sawdust or peat moss. Store bulbs in a cool, dry place for winter.

Dig herbs to bring indoors for winter use.

Bulb-planting tips.

Tips for growing herbs indoors.

Deadheading

Remove all old blossoms on butterfly bushes and other plants that self-sow excessively (kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, black-eyed Susan, hollyhock, cosmos, dame's rocket, South American verbena, and perilla) to eliminate massive self-sowing. Even a beauty like butterfly bush can quickly become a problem plant if left to seed freely.

Plant Spring Bulbs

You can plant spring bulbs until the ground freezes or rains begin. Choose from favorites, like tulip, daffodil, or hyacinth, or try some unusual beauties, like species tulips, fritillaria, or allium.

Make the most of bulb plantings with these tips:

  • Toss a handful of bulb fertilizer into planting holes, mixing with soil at the base of the hole.
  • Use a bulb auger attachment to turn a power drill into a bulb planting machine.
  • Deter burrowing animals from devouring your bulbs by planting in wire cages.
  • Overplant bulbs with pretty companions, such as pansy or flowering kale for winter color, or spring-blooming perennials, like forget-me-not, sweet woodruff, creeping basket of gold, candytuft, and English primrose.

Beautiful bulb combinations.

Test Garden Tip: Force bulbs for indoor blooms. For successful flowering, bulbs require a cold spell: 14-16 weeks at 41-48 degrees F. Once the cold period is complete, plan on another two to three weeks at room temperature before flowering begins. If you plant bulbs for forcing now, you'll have blooms in January.

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