The Garden In October
October remains my favorite month.
No doubt I have said that of May — and might do so again during a particularly charming spring, but October will always possess a deep resonance that May cannot muster. At once it immerses us in the sights, scents and bounty of the growing season, and then just as suddenly, releases us.
It is fleeting, earthy and all consuming — and I adore it.
Whether gardener or not, Human beings must scuttle around during the month of October crossing their ‘t’s and dotting their ‘i’s before the onslaught of winter.
Wood must be stacked or fuel tanks filled. The outside spigots must be turned off, and many a home owner starts to think seriously about buying an overpriced, shiny red snow blower this month. We may be preparing for the mother of all winters, or a mild chill; but no matter how much we are told otherwise, no one truly knows what we are in for.
Thankfully we’ve got an extraordinary backdrop to reflect upon in between tasks.
October walks are the best of all walks, filled with scent and discovery. Leaves, fungi…glorious decay. And the first fire — whether outside or in — provides a quiet rediscovery of that primal relationship before necessity and November take the fun right out of it.
How are you preparing your garden?
“I should have planted that!” for the October garden
Carefully observing neighboring gardens month-to-month allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season without having to experiment too much with regional timing. Make a note of the plants you love and keep it with you when you go plant shopping during the next planting season.
For the beautiful, blustery month of October in the Mid-Atlantic, how about a fall-blooming superstar – windflower (Anemone x hybrida, Anemone hupehensis, A. tomentosa)?
Windflowers, also known as Japanese anemones, are a graceful, buoyant addition to the mid-autumn garden – infusing it with a freshness that perks up tired borders with color and movement. They surprise the gardener with a touch of summer against berrying shrubs and reddening foliage. Many will be blooming throughout October and even through light frosts.
Early to emerge in spring, the lobed, green foliage can act almost as groundcover during the growing season, and care must be taken to ensure that it does not too vigorously embrace more delicate plants. In late summer and early autumn, tall wand-like stems emerge from lower-growing foliage. They are surprisingly strong considering their cargo — ripe, glorious flower buds that slowly open over three to four weeks.
Flowers come in white, pink, and deep rose – both doubles and singles. The Swan series from Elizabeth MacGregor Nurseries that began with a hybrid sport with striking lilac petal coloration on the reverse of the petals — ‘Wild Swan’ — now boasts cultivars with ruffled leaves, pink backsides and a taller habits. ‘Wild Swan’ blooms earlier in spring and continues on and off throughout the season. It is also not as aggressive as other cultivars.
As with most flowers, my favorites are singles — ‘Honorine Jobert’ – a tall white cultivar at 3-4 ft. and the soft pink ‘September Charm’ at 2-3 ft. Both bloom throughout October in my Mid-Atlantic garden.
How to Grow Anemone x hybrida
A sheltered spot in partial shade is ideal for windflowers as those long flower wands can topple in strong winds. They appreciate a moisture retentive soil that is rich in organic matter, and once they are planted they would rather that you left them alone to take over that bit of the garden.
In rich, partially shaded soil you’ll be digging them out within three years to stop them smothering other plants. I keep them on the hungrier, drier side and don’t need to do very much weeding. Divisions of established clubs should be made in the spring as they are slow to recover, and often the fall show lasts throughout all of October — who can bear to ruin that?
Outside Tasks for The October Garden:
Cleaning up in the vegetable garden is one way of making a dent in insect populations that overwinter under dead leaves and debris. If you have suffered an serious infestation of a particular insect, such as Harlequin bug on the kale, or squash bug on the squash, they are probably still very present on the dying foliage. Access your inner predator. Use a chicken, use a blow torch or use your hands to gather them and put them into a black plastic bag that should be thrown away. Composting the vegetable debris in a cold compost pile will just allow them places to overwinter.
Dead leaves make excellent soil amendments – but they need to be gathered and composted first. Don’t spend time raking only to give this lovely free amendment away wrapped in bags that you (gasp) bought for the purpose. Compost! Layering with grass clippings, kitchen waste and seed-free weeds can give you the informal balance of brown/green materials that you need for successful decay.
If you haven’t yet started a compost pile, don’t wait for the day that you will finally build the Taj Mahal of bins – do something now, temporarily, using pallets and long zip ties to fasten them together. Or, start a small pile in an unobtrusive corner. When you have the energy, you can build something more beautiful, but at least you’ll be composting until then.
Time to walk through your pot ghetto and figure out what will probably die over the winter if it is not planted. What’s the use of procuring a plant by hook or by crook if it’s only going to croak in February in a lonely black pot? It doesn’t have to be planted where you eventually want it – just get it in the ground…fast! However, If the plant is zone marginal (right on the edge of its growing zone), cover it with a pile of mulch and wait until spring.
Outside water spigots – leave on at your peril.
Evergreens that were recently planted and which might fit under the column header “Zone Pushers” MUST BE PROTECTED from winter winds. Wire and straw are all you need – but if you have access to old metal barrels, these make fine wind blocks too.
Test your soil pH and amend your soil as necessary to give the winter a chance to temper additions of lime or sulfur. This is job well suited to the autumn as plants can be damaged from soil that’s had its pH recently (and significantly) amended.
Still a good time to amend the organic content of your soil with compost or manure, but avoid putting actual fertilizer (organic or non) on your soil till spring as you may waste much of it. Nitrogen in particular will only leach out during the winter months.
Just because it’s cooler, doesn’t mean it’s legal to burn outside yet. October is prime forest fire month in some areas of the country. Check your local laws.
Frost is likely by mid to late month in the Mid-Atlantic. If you’re planning on saving cuttings from tender plants such as coleus or plectranthus, take them now before you lose your chance one cold evening.
Once the frost has browned the foliage of easy tropicals like colocasia or canna, dig them and bring them in to the basement or garage or another frost-free location for the season. More tips on how to do this can be found here. Thinking of growing a few tropicals next year? My new book Tropical Plants and How To Love Them is available for pre-order from Amazon now!
October is a prime month for foraging! Ever thought about trying it? Here are a few thoughts to encourage you.
Inside Tasks for The October Garden:
Tropical houseplants on the deck that have reveled in summer’s warmth and light are overdue to come inside. It’s time to make a jungle in your living room and think about getting a smaller Christmas tree this year. Use saucers!!!
Take time to inspect all plants coming inside for pests – particularly scale and spidermite. If present at this point, you may not have enough time to treat twice with horticultural oil before bringing in. You’ll have to stay on top of it over the next few weeks or you could have a big issue on your hands.
Do yourself a favor and keep watering cans on every floor of the house for easy access. When water is convenient, plants get it more often.
“Oh, Marilla,” Anne exclaimed one Saturday morning…dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?”
-from “Anne of Green Gables”
by Lucy Maud Montgomery