Fall Tasks: Harvest, Store & Plant

What to do in the garden in September and October

September 21, 2021
Apples

Like you, I’m harvesting vegetables and fruit from my garden and preparing for storage. This is also a great time for doing a little renovating in the perennial garden—as well as planting or dividing bulbs. The cool weather will keep me busy! Let’s talk about what to do in the garden in September and October—before the ground freezes!

Harvesting and Storing Fall Vegetables

  • I just picked the last peas and snap beans, steamed them briefly and froze in bags for winter meals.  You can do the same with broccoli sprouts and Brussels sprouts.
  • Pick all green tomatoes on plants, too, when a frost is imminent.  Store them in a single layer on trays and platters at normal room temperature until they ripen.  You can be eating your own tasty tomatoes for Thanksgiving with luck.
  • Cut pumpkins and Winter squash from their vines, when stems are browning and tough.
  • Store that squash in a cool, dark area like a basement or closet. Wash the rinds with white vinegar and water first to clean off dirt and prevent rot.   

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  • I also plant more cold-hardy crops in early fall including wonderful Asian greens and some roots veggies. Plus, don’t forget garlic is best planted in early fall—any time after the fall equinox! See how to plant garlic

Picking Apples and Pears

I’m picking tons of apples, Asian pears and pears from my eight-tree miniature orchard. Those are ready to pick when lifting the fruit up at the stem results in the apple or pear separating from the tree.  Don’t worry if they are a bit under ripe; they’ll ripen in storage.  About half of what I harvest is donated to the local food bank.  To find a food bank in your area, click here.

Pears, regular and Asian, don’t keep long, about six weeks in the refrigerator.  I make pie filling from my extras and freeze it in individual pie-size containers.

Apples store much longer in cool, dark areas.  After you fill up the refrigerator, put the remaining apples in the basement or a cold garage.  Many varieties will store up to six months.  Apple butter and tarts to freeze are some of the ways I use up extra apples, too.

Le Nain Vert pears are nearly ready to pick.  This ancient variety lacks the typical pear shape, but it’s filled with plenty of flavor.

Planting Bulbs for Spring Blooms

Fall is the best time to plant bulbs that flower in the spring for root establishment. Invest in a better bulb for better flowers. Ensure you have well-drained soil. Amend poor soils by adding organic matter (peat, manure, compost).

When to plant?  “The simple answer is that bulb planting season starts once your soil temperature reaches about 55 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a Connecticut-based flower bulb wholesaler. “The problem is who knows what their soil temperature is?” he adds.

He asked landscape pros on his website (www.colorblends.com) that question and came up with this list of tips.

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Photo courtesy of Colorblends.

It’s time to plant bulbs when:

•Fall foliage has moved just past peak

•Crickets no longer chirp

•Birds start to group and depart

•You start turning on the heat in your car

•The air smells of wood smoke

•Grapes are ripening on the vine

•The hostas start to lie down

•The air has that organic, decaying leaf smell

•The dog moves from a cool to a sunny spot in the yard

•The kids start putting on their jackets without being nagged by you

I’m not ready yet to plant bulbs, due to a warm early October, but I can hardly wait until the kids put on their jackets!

Planting Shrubs and Trees

Early fall is a good time to plant container-grown or balled-and-burlapped nursery stock. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right trees so start looking on the early side.

When you plant, some folks say to make the hole twice as big as the root ball; I don’t find that to be necessary but the hole does need to be wider than the ball. And plant at the same depth.  Do not bury trees! Find the root flare that comes out at base of tree which will give you an indication of the soil level of where the plant can be sitting.

Before I plant, I break up and loosen the soil and I really wet the whole down before you put the tree in. Take hose and in bottom of hose, turn on, and mud that tree in.

After you plant, don’t forget to water in to remove air pockets. And mulch to protect against large fluctuations in soil temperature and moisture. But never mulch right next to the trunk which invites critters and problems.

See tree-planting tips for fall and our list of best shrubs to plant in fall.

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Image: Balled-and-burlapped trees. Photo by Toprawman/Getty Images.

Planting and Dividing Perennial Flowers

As well as planting new perennial flowers, this is a good time to transplant and divide many perennials—especially those which flower in the spring and early summer including peonies, irises, lilies, bleeding heart, and lily-of-the-valley. You want to do this job 6 weeks before the ground freezes.

I will transplant when I’ve discovered a perennial needs a different growing environment or doesn’t like where it’s growing. Only divide a perennial when all the growth appears on the outer edges, it doesn’t bloom as well, or the blooms are smaller than usual. This means your plant have overcrowded roots. Here are directions I’ve always followed:

  1. Using a shovel, dig out as much of the clump of the perennial as possible along with the soil. Don’t break off the soil until later and do so very gently. If you are dividing the plant, once it is out of the ground, separate the crowns by cutting them with a sharp knife or shovel blade. Preserve as many of the roots as possible.
  2. Prepare the new planting spot or revive the old one by turning the soil at least 8 inches deep. Remove rocks, roots, and debris.  Add plenty of compost and some aged manure.
  3. Dig a hole that is 1.5 times as deep and wide as the plant’s roots. Build a firm mound of soil in the middle of the hole. Spread the roots over the mound so that the crown sits at or just below the soil line. Gently back fill the hole and pull the soil up around the crown just as you would a container grown plant.
  4. Water the plant and keep it consistently moist until a hard freeze. Don’t bother with fertilizer as it will only encourage top growth, which takes energy away from the roots.
  5. Once the ground freezes, apply a 3-inch layer of mulch and you are done. 

Learn more about caring for perennials

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Photo: Take advantage of multiplying daylilies Credit: extension.msstate.edu

Digging Up Tender Plants 

Tender plants have to be dug up. They are too sensitive to cold temperatures.

I dig up tuberous begonia and caladium just before frost. Store in warm location 7 to 10 days so they dry and won’t rot in storage. Don’t overdo it or they will get too dry! Store by packing between layering in potting material like vermiculite or sawdust or peat moss. Store in a dark storage area that doesn’t get too cold.  Store at 45 to 50 degrees.

With dahlias, cut back 3 to 4 inches after the first light frost. Then carefully lift plants, leave as much soil attached to prevent breaking fleshy roots. Air dry for only a few hours; dahlias are very sensitive to drying.
Store at 35 to 40 degrees.

Cannas don’t need to be dug up until after a hard frost. Cut tops back to 4 inches, lift with spading fork ,and air dry in warm spot 1 to 2 weeks. Roots don’t need covering. Simply place in shallow boxes. Roots best stores at 45 to 50 degrees.

Learn more about storing tender bulbs for winter.

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Controlling Fall & Winter Weeds

Don’t let weeds get hold late in the season.  If you are using a fall pre-emergent regime, continue into fall and winter. Don’t let weeds get a food hold! 

My organic solution for cleaned-out vegetable beds is cover crops. Plant by end of September. They’ll control weeds, improve soil quality, and prevent erosion in wet months. 

Learn more about cover crops

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Image: Crimson clover, a beautiful cover crop that flowers.

Bringing Outdoor Plants Inside

Bring outdoor plants back inside before night temps fall below 55 degrees F. Check and control insects BEFORE bringing plants into house or it will spread to other houseplants.

Houseplants will drop leaves adjusting to light. You could transition by put in a bright spot first. Water indoor plants less frequently, and discontinue fertilizer. 

If you’re cleaning out containers or pots, be sure to sterlize before storing them to prevent build up of pathogens. Soak in solution of 1 part bleach in 9 parts water for min of 10 minutes. Then transfer to a solution of dish detergent and water to rinse. Use steel wool or a wire bristle brush to clean dirt from clay pots.

Learn more about bringing outdoor plants inside.

Testing the Garden Soil Now

Fall is the best time to do a soil test. I try to test every 3 to 5 years for fertilizer levels and needs. Fertilizer can cause lots of salt buildup. Contact your county cooperative extension for a free or cheap soil test or ask a garden nursery how it’s done.

You’ll want to incorporate organic matter in the fall to let the organic organisms work the soil all winter, avoid getting waterlogged soil in the spring, and because it’s easier than trying to do all the garden activities in the spring. Plus, soil prepared in fall will warm up faster!

Learn more about how to prepare your soil in the fall
 

About This Blog

A lifelong gardener shares the endless lessons she’s learned from her garden over the years, in hopes of making your own gardening just that much easier! Read along for advice, photos, and more.

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