Labor Day Gardening: What to Do in the Garden This Weekend


Harvesting, Preserving, Planting, and More

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Although some folks say Labor Day is the “end of summer,” that’s certainly not true for most gardeners. We’re harvesting, storing the bounty, saving seeds, dividing plants, and—yes—planting for a “second summer.” Come join us in the garden—and learn what to do in September.

Heads up, North Americans! The season will be with us for a few weeks until the autumnal equinox on September 22, and then come the cooler temperatures. Gardening in the fall is so much more relaxing. And planting after Labor Day leads to a bountiful harvest for many regions!

Harvest the Bounty

Seeing the plants ripen and finally bear fruit is most exciting. At this time of year, make a daily trip around you garden. 

Depending on where you live, you may be picking beans, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, melons, winter squash, and more!

  • One Labor Day weekend, I spent the entire day digging up ‘Russian Banana’ fingerling potatoes, ‘All Blue’ and ‘Red Rose’ potatoes.
  • Plus, we picked Asian pears, apples, carrots, and Brussels sprouts. It took three times as long to clean and store everything as it did to pick the huge harvest.
When refrigerated, apples can remain tasty for up to six months.

Preserve the Harvest

One of the greatest joys of edible gardening is being able to store, freeze, dry and even can excess crops for winter enjoyment. Call me old-fashioned, but I feel a deep kinship to my ancestors who came to this country, raised large families, and fed them from either the home gardens of my Hungarian side of the family or the farm my Irish-Cherokee grandfather worked.

I feel I shouldn’t waste anything grown in my organic garden. So, after I share with neighbors and family and give large amounts to an organization called “Plant a Row for the Hungry”, I preserve the remaining vegetables and fruits. See 4 easy way to preserve your fruit and vegetables at home.

I picked over two bushels of Asian pears—far more than we could eat, give away, and share with the hungry. The crisp, juicy fruits only keep about six weeks in the refrigerator and they must be stored in sealed bags to prevent dehydration. I hate to lose this exquisite fruit treat, so I borrowed a dehydrator from a friend to dry wedges of the pears into fruit crisps.

When it came to my Brussels sprouts, I blanched the sprouts to prepare for freezing, I had grown five Brussels sprouts stalks, and it took hours to cut, trim and blanch them all, but I have enough of the tasty vegetables for the entire winter in my freezer.

In addition, I scrubbed carrots and potatoes for storage, and I dipped all my fruit in a bath of water with a tablespoon of bleach to kill any lingering bacteria or fungi before refrigerating. 

Next, I picked all the ripe tomatoes in the garden, roasted them and made spaghetti sauce, which I froze in pint containers.

It was a long day’s work, but satisfying.

Build a Root Cellar: Try, Try Again!

Years ago, I read about how to make an instant outdoor root cellar and wanted to try it, given that my basement has cement floors and is partially heated, like most modern homes. With my husband’s help, we constructed a simple root cellar one Labor Day weekend.

He dug a deep hole in which we set a new 32-gallon plastic trash can. In it, I layered damp sand and root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and beets, finishing with a thick layer of damp sand. The top was attached and covered with two feet of shredded leaves and straw. It didn’t work. Moisture leaked into the can and iced the vegetables. Everything rotted when thawed.

Each heirloom potato variety has a different flavor, but they’re all terrific!

The following year, I set up an area in the basement, in the coldest and darkest area, with plastic bins lined with a layer of damp sand. Here, I’m storing the potatoes and carrots. Onions, winter squash, and a couple of pumpkins will be stored adjacent in a dry area when they are harvested. Apples go upstairs in an extra refrigerator, because they exude ethylene gas that makes other vegetables and fruits ripen rapidly and rot.

Learn how to build a root cellar here.

Divide Perennials

Labor Day weekend is a very good time to divide summer-blooming perennials.

A hole or dead area in the center of the planting area is a sign that a perennial needs to be divided. Other cues are poor flowering or pale foliage. 

You want to divide once flowers have stopped their flowering well before winter. This allows the divisions to become well established and spent the winter on root growth before the springtime. 

Usually, it’s a good idea to divide most perennials every few years, although some never need to be divided and others such as mums could benefit from dividing every year. This year, I needed to divide my bearded irises. See how to divide irises.

Divided irises. A lot of work, but worth it!

Store Seeds

For early-blooming perennials, you can also collect the seed pods and store them to sow next year! Store seeds from lupines, columbines, and others in the refrigerator.

Fertilize Lawns

If there is one time to fertilize a cool-season lawn, it’s around Labor Day.

Also, seed or reseed any bare batches now; this is a better time than spring. Weather conditions going into autumn favor growth of grass, especially growth of their roots. See lawn care tips.

Plant Shrubs and Trees

As temperatures cool, you can plant shrubs, trees, perennials, and even some annual vegetables.

For shrubs and trees, prepare your soil with organic matter such as compost. Ensure the enriched soil is wide enough for the growing area, not just for the planting hole. 

Water the soil a few hours before planting and then after planting, too. See tree-planting tips for fall.


Plant Cool-Season Vegetables

Gardening on or after Labor Day leads to a bountiful harvest! In the North, there are many cool-season plants to enjoy, including lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, turnips, Brussels sprouts. In the South, gardeners can grow almost anything they like, aside from most heat-loving veggies!

Below are 10 crops that grow quickly, in time to mature before the frost kicks in; they are extra hardy, verdant, and longer-lasting. Note that many are leafy greens that can even withstanding the frost through part of winter.

Remember to consider a seed packet’s listed “days to maturity” and back out from your frost date in order to find your planting dates. Also take a look at the Almanac’s last Fall Planting Dates.

1. Arugula
Days to Maturity: 20-40 days

2. Broccoli
Days to Maturity: 35-65 days

3. Kale
Days to Maturity: 35-65 days

4. Leaf Lettuce
Days to Maturity: 40-60 days

5. Mesclun Lettuce
Days to Maturity: 30-45 days

6. Mustard Greens
Days to Maturity: 25-40 days

7. Pak Choi
Days to Maturity: 30-40 days
Recommended Variety: Toy Choi

8. Radishes
Days to Maturity: 30-40 days

9. Swiss Chard
Days to Maturity: 30-50 days

10. Turnips
Days to Maturity: 50-60 days

Other vegetables to consider (depending on your climate) are: beets, beans, kohlrabi, peas, and green onions.

Keep an eye out for frosts or freezes. See how to use row covers, cold frames, and other ways to protect your garden from frosts.

Cover Crops

Plant a winter cover crop in areas of the garden as they become vacant through mid-October. Cover crops are an excellent way to keep your soil protected, avoid erosion, and give nutrients back to the land for a better growing season in the spring. Winter rye is a common winter cover crop and you can find the seeds at garden and farm stores. See the Almanac’s chart on cover crops.

What are you doing in the garden this time of year? How do you preserve the harvest? We’d love to hear from you!

About The Author

Doreen G. Howard

Doreen Howard, an award-winning author, is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day. She has gardened in every climate zone from California to Texas to Oklahoma to the Midwest. She’s especially fond of unusual houseplants and heirloom edibles. Read More from Doreen G. Howard

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