October gardening tips

The weather may be growing cooler, but don’t take a gardening rest just yet! The time for “R&R” will come when you’ve properly prepared your beds for winter and next spring.

As tree leaves continue to change color and the weather turns cooler, many gardeners breathe a sigh of relief that the end of the gardening season is upon them. Investing a little more time in the garden right now can help plants better survive our cold winter temperatures and start off the 2012 garden season on the right foot. As an added bonus, completing these garden tasks now will free you up from having to do them next spring when there will be so many other things to do! Here are several suggestions:

Vegetables and fruit

  • Clean up remaining debris and dead plants in the vegetable garden to reduce overwintering pests and diseases.
  • Harvest gourds when stems begin to brown and dry. Cure at 70 to 80°F for two to four weeks in a dry, well-ventilated location.
  • Dig and store potatoes in a dark location with moderate humidity and around 40°F.
  • Plant garlic before the ground freezes for harvest next summer. Depending on your location in Michigan, best planting is generally sometime in October.
  • Prepare the soil for next year’s garden by removing weeds and adding organic matter.
  • Find that perfect Halloween pumpkin at a local pumpkin farm. For longer lasting pumpkins, select ones with a solidly attached stem and free from cuts, soft spots and bruises.
  • Remove and dispose of fallen apples that may harbor apple maggot or codling moth larvae.
  • Harvest and store apples at around 40°F and moderate humidity.


  • Pull annuals flowers and cut back perennials in your flower beds. This is especially important where insects or disease were a problem this summer. Cleaning up the garden this fall will reduce pest problems in next year's garden.
  • Carefully lift and store perennials such as cannas, dahlias and gladiolas. These plants have tender bulbs, corms or tubers and often succumb to our cold Michigan winters if left in the ground over winter.
  • Incorporate compost or organic matter into the soil as dividing and renovation activities go on.
  • Bring in any pots that can't take a freeze – terra cotta, ceramic and many plastic pots.


  • Mulch leaves into your lawn. It’s a great way to recycle nutrients and add organic matter to your turf. Make sure your mower has a sharp blade to ensure the leaves will be chopped up well. Set your mower height as high as it will go and mow at your normal speed. Try to mow the leaves when they are moist from the morning dew, but don’t mow them when they’re really wet. Finally, don’t let the leaves pile up greater than 3 to 4 inches deep before mowing.
  • Continue mowing your lawn as long as your grass is growing.
  • Once your lawn stops growing, lower the mowing height for your final mowing. This will help clean up the lawn, prevents grass from being too tall going into the winter and reduces problems with voles and snow mold. Michigan State University Extension turfgrass specialist, Kevin Frank, recommends lowering the mowing height no more than one notch on your mower (typically half an inch).
  • Be sure to winterize your irrigation system before a hard freeze.

Trees and shrubs

  • Move trees and shrubs after fall leaf drop, but before the ground freezes. Fall planting should take place soon after leaf drop, providing time for new water absorbing roots to develop before the soil freezes.

General garden tips

  • Fall is a great time to have your soil tested. Soil testing labs are not as busy in the fall as they are in the spring. Be sure to take a representative soil sample of the area to be tested. Use a trowel and take small samples of soil from 8 to 12 different spots and place in a clean container. Mix the soil and remove about a cup of soil to send to the lab. Make sure the sample is dry.
  • Evaluate your garden and make notes to help plan next year’s effort. A garden journal is a great way to keep track of what worked and what didn’t work in your garden. Note which plants did especially well and what ones you don’t want to grow again. Note favorite varieties for flavor, disease resistance and performance. Note location of insects, diseases and weed problems to get a jump on them for next year.

For additional gardening information, call the MSU Extension Lawn and Garden Hotline at 1-888-MSUE-4MI (1-888-678-3464). You can also visit www.migarden.msu.edu .


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