The Garden in October

Author’s Note:  The following gardening tips for October are taken from THE NEW ENGLAND GARDENER’S YEAR by Reeser Manley and Marjorie Peronto (2013, Cadent Publishing, Thomaston, Maine).  It is an excellent reference book for planning next year’s garden and makes an great holiday gift!  It can be purchased at local book stores, including BookMarcs Bookstore in Bangor, and online.

For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together.  For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.

–Edwin Way Teele, Autumn Across America, 1990

In October the sun travels across a low arc, barely making it above the tree line surrounding Marjorie’s Garden.  Long shadows crisscross the garden throughout the day.  In the wild border at the foot of the drive, all of the goldenrods have gone to seed, leaving only small clouds of fall asters and a few white campion flowering amid the brown stalks and seedheads.  The campion’s bright white flowers were with us through the summer, and now most of the branch tips carry upright brown capsules, miniature urns filled with poppy-like seeds ready to spill out with the next strong wind.

Crimson leaves of Virginia creeper fall on golden pine needles in the garden footpaths.

In October, leaves and fruits color the garden.  Winterberries sparkle in the early morning sunlight; crimson leaves of Virginia creeper fall on golden pine needles in the garden footpaths.  New England woods and gardens are painted with the rich browns and yellows of American beech.  Many of the leaves will persist, giving voice to winter winds.




October woods are painted with the rich browns and yellows of American beech.

In late October, long after most of the birch and maple leaves are on the ground, while oaks paint the hills with dark reds and browns, witchhazels bloom in the corner of the garden.  Their yellow leaves persist, as do the leaves of blueberries and viburnums.  It will take rain to weigh them down, another wind to carry them off.

I am always saddened by it, all of this color gone in one stormy night.

General Maintenance

There is still plenty to do in the vegetable garden, tasks focused on either putting the garden to rest for the winter or preparing for the coming gardening year.  If you have yet to get to it, now is a good time to  make a map of where every vegetable crop was grown this year, a key tool for making next year’s crop rotation plans.

Continue to spend chilly mornings pulling out freeze-killed vegetable plants, chopping them up with a sharp spade before adding them to the compost pile.  Gather up all the mush fruits and add them to the pile; you don’t want to pulling renegade tomato and squash seedlings next spring.  If you have some composted manure handy, add it in layers with the chopped plants and fruits.

To help control bacterial spot, canker, early blight, alternaria, and other tomato diseases that can survive winter in the garden, tomato cages and stakes should be cleaned of soil and plant debris, then disinfected with a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water for five minutes.  Rinse well and let them air dry before storing them for the winter.

Unlike the above diseases, the organism that causes late blight on tomatoes and potatoes does not survive winter above ground.  Is is, however, carried through the winter on live plant tissue, so be sure to dig up and destroy any infected tomato tubers, those with brownish purple spots that become a wet or dry rot.  Start fresh next year with certified disease-free seed potatoes.  Do not compost infected tubers, as some plant tissue could survive the winter in the center of the pile.

Keep weeding!  Frost-tolerant winter annuals, such as henbit and chickweed, as well as perennial weeds such as dandelions, can be pulled now rather than waiting until spring.  This is also a good time to tackle quackgrass and other persistent grasses that creep into garden beds from the edges during the growing season.  Use a sharp spade or an edger to cut a straight line, then pull the grass, making sure to get all of the roots.

Soil Testing

For Maine gardeners, late autumn is a particularly good time to collect soil samples from your garden, since the Analytical Laboratory and Maine Soil Testing Service (University of Maine, Orono) offers fee discounts for samples received between January 1 and March 1.  Simply take the samples in late October, then let them air dry until January.  For complete details, including instructions on how to take the samples and where to deliver them, visit their website:  If you tell the Analytical Lab that your garden is organic, they will respond with organic soil amendment recommendations.

Planting Garlic

The best garlic bulbs from the August harvest are saved for late October planting.

If you have yet to purchase garlic for fall planting, it is not too late.  Most seed companies can ship bulbs immediately in plenty of time for planting.  If this will be your first year for growing garlic, I suggest the following varieties, based on results in Marjorie’s Garden: Russian Red, German Extra Hardy, and Georgian Fire.  This year I am planting these three varieties plus Music, a variety recommended by many garlic growers including my garlic guru, Ron Kujawski of Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

It is possible to plant garlic too early.  Rather than planting by the calendar, be sure to wail until after the first hard freeze.  Cloves planted into warm soil will sprout and then be killed by a hard freeze.

In early October, prepare a well-groomed bed enriched with compost or composted manure.  At planting time, break each bulb into individual cloves, then plant the cloves with the pointed end up, 4 to 6 inches apart, covering the tip with 2 to 4 inches of soil.  If planting in rows, allow 12 to 18 inches between rows.

About four weeks after planting, as the ground begins to freeze, cover the planted area with 6 to 12 inches of straw.  This will prevent heaving of the soil with freezing and thawing and ensure survival of the planted cloves through extreme cold.

As the ground thaws in the spring, look for green shoot tips beneath the straw.  When they emerge, pull the straw back, but leave it in place between the rows to smother weeds and retain the water in the soil.  If you have planted in a wide row or bed, completely remove the straw.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: