Features and Occasionals

In the Garden: Fall Works

By Kay Denton

Your garden still offers you a long list of reasons to go outside and play in the dirt.

There’s still plenty of good fall weather left, the inspiring kind that begs you to come out and play in it.  Gardens need attention before winter settles in.

Planting and thinning

You can plant spring bulbs as long as the ground isn’t frozen (this may be as late as December). Tulips and daffodils are the most common, but by no means the only choices.

Ground cover is also a possibility for fall planting as long as the plants can establish roots before a freeze. Ensure that they’re watered regularly, but wait to mulch them until after the ground freezes.

Plant any new deciduous trees by mid-October to provide a chance to get them established before hard freezes. When buying a new tree, doublecheck that the trunk and branches are strong and uninjured, and that it hasn’t been damaged by overpruning. Evergreens are also candidates for fall planting. They will winter over well with plenty of initial watering coupled with good mulching.

Many bulbs need periodic thinning. Every three or four years is good for larger varieties such as daffodils, while five or more years works for smaller types like crocuses. Lilies could use yearly attention. Over­crowded bulb beds fail to bloom profusely as the plants compete for scarce nutrients.

Go down six to eight inches and carefully lift out the bulbs with a spade. Brush or lightly wash away the dirt to distinguish one bulb from another. Break them apart at the joints by gently twisting and then inspect each one for signs of damage or disease. Keep only the largest and healthiest bulbs for replanting. The new sites should be three times the width of the bulb and several inches apart. Share any leftover bulbs with your friends, or bring some of them inside for forced winter blooming.


Pruning promotes plant health by removing dead or diseased limbs as well as branches that rub against each other. It maintains the plant’s shape or purpose in the garden, encouraging flower and fruit growth. Controlling plant size and removing unwanted branches, suckers and undesirable fruiting improves the plant’s appearance. Pruning ensures safety by eliminating dead limbs that might fall and branches that block walkways.

Most vines actually warm to pruning. Grapes can tolerate cutting into late winter and as far down the main stem as possible. This encourages them to grow more. Cut at an angle to increase circulation and air flow.

Raspberries can acquire diseases and die out if left to grow large and bushy. They need light and air for the fruit to grow. Cut back the canes that bore fruit because they won’t yield in the future; these canes are grayish with peeling bark. Then thin so that only the hardiest canes remain within each row.

Blackberries are easier to care for. Pinch the tops off the tips of new canes to encourage side shoots where the new berries will grow the following year. Cut out canes that produced fruit this year.

How to prune clematis depends on the type. Spring-blooming varieties are better cut back after the first flowering in late April or early May. Varieties with small flowers require only light pruning after blooming ends in fall. Large-flowered varieties needs a light pruning when summer blooming is over, and more intense pruning in fall following the last flourish, trimming down to the healthy stem.

You can prune Virginia creeper in early winter, mostly to keep it within bounds and remove dead, diseased or loose vines. Cut at an angle above the leaf bud.

October notes

Orna­men­tal cabbage and kale add color to the fall garden. (And just because they’re pretty doesn’t mean you can’t eat them, too!)

Consider planting pansies and violas now. Both flowers thrive in cooler weather, and can develop strong root systems to survive the winter cold while the weather remains mild. They provide interesting texture and variety, tucked in near spring bulbs.

Continue watering any annuals or biennials that are still growing.

Collect seeds from the annuals you want to continue next year.

Make cuttings for plant propagation and place them in a plastic bag with a little potting soil near a sunny window. Repot the cuttings once they sprout roots.

Make sure to water the spring bulbs you’ve planted regularly if the autumn weather is dry.

Dig up late summer bulbs such as dahlias and gladiolus. You can separate any new offshoots, or clump them together in a cool, dark place to winter over. Wooden crates or styrofoam coolers filled with sphagnum moss or sawdust work well. Check on bulbs monthly for rotting (too damp) or shriveling (too dry).

Plant and water perennials any time until the ground freezes. Remove dried and dead leaves and stems, especially after the first hard frost.

I usually cut back my ornamental grasses, but leaving them intact generates interesting textures in the winter landscape.

Remove any diseased or dead branches from trees and shrubs and provide deep watering. Trees lose water through transpiration, even during the cooler weather, and need the reservoirs to help them through the winter. Wrap upright evergreens to prevent branch breakage during heavy snowfalls.

Pot up herbs from your garden and place them inside along sunny windows. Once the danger of snow and freezing passes in the spring, you can replant them outside or keep them in the pots as accents on decks or other spots in the garden.

Harvest winter squash once the hard frost hits. If you want to keep them through the winter, store them(no cuts or bruises, please) in a cool, dry place.

You can extend the season for vegetables such as leaf lettuce, endive, escarole and radishes in a cold frame.

Bring in green tomatoes and fry them. Or place them in a shallow cardboard box in a cool area to ripen.

Keep the compost pile moist, but not soggy since that will slow decomposition. Use completed compost to amend the garden soil this month and move any leftover veggie stems into the pile to maintain the process. Turn the compost into the soil to a depth of six to eight inches. Don’t bother smoothing down the soil; the whorls and trenches will collect valuable frost and snow for future moisture.

Finally, if you haven’t kept a garden journal, now might be a good time to start one while the season is still fresh in your mind. It’s helpful to indicate what worked and where and what didn’t; what might be moved in the spring to a better location; and where and when you purchased plants, shrubs and trees. If you remember them, make a note of the Latin plant names as these are universal while common references aren’t.

Enjoy your October and happy gardening! 

Kay Denton writes and gardens in Salt Lake City. She is a longtime CATALYST contributor.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2011.