The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

October Garden Chores

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Generally watering plants would not be on our October "to do" list. I remember spending many Octobers "mudding in" flowering bulbs. We usually have enough rain and plants have less demand for water at lower temperatures. At this point we are heading into fall with many plants suffering from water stress.

According to State Climatologist Jim Angel of the Illinois State Water Survey (, September 2004 was the fourth driest September on record. It was great news for festival fans and farmers. Not great news for gardens and landscapes.

As a gardener the predictions for fall also have me concerned. According to Angel, "Historically, a dry September tends to precede a dry October–November. And a dry fall tends to precede a dry winter."

The general rule of green thumb is an inch of water a week for perennial flowers, shrubs and trees especially new transplants. This of course can vary depending on soil types, plant species and the amount of sun and wind. Watering is especially important for evergreens such as pines, yews and rhododendrons. As long as the soil isn't frozen and evergreens are not getting at least one inch of water every two weeks through rainfall, than they should be watered. So grab the hose.

Other activities in the October garden

Vegetable garden

  • Enjoy the therapeutic value of putting the garden to bed. A bittersweet opportunity to reflect on the season – make notes of what did well and what didn't.
  • Clean up plant remnants from the garden. Start a compost pile with all the leaves and garden debris.
  • Till compost, manure or shredded leaves into the garden.
  • Take a soil sample to a soil lab. Place a trowel-full of soil from 6-8 different areas in the garden into a clean bucket. Mix thoroughly and get the final one-cup sample from the mixture. If parts of the garden are specialized into blueberries or have different histories such as where the burn pile was, sample these areas separately. Add any recommended amendments this fall such as sulfur to lower the pH. Soil testing labs are listed in the yellow pages of the phone book.

Trees and shrubs

  • Apply anti-transpirants such as Wilt Pruf to needled and broad-leaved evergreens in windy locations. These waxy spray coatings help slow down water loss through leaves and needles. Barriers of pine boughs or burlap can also be used.
  • Erect barriers of poultry wire or hardware cloth to protect young trees and shrubs from rabbit and vole damage. Favorite plants on the menu include blueberries, roses, euonymus, fruit trees, and brambles.


  • Consider leaving plant remnants on the garden until spring to add winter interest, provide wildlife food and help hold mulch.
  • Mulch perennial flowerbeds and roses with loose materials such as wood chips, pine needles, pine boughs or shredded leaves. Plants should be completely dormant before mulching, usually late November or early December. The unseasonably dry conditions may help perennials such as chrysanthemums that tend to die in winter due to wet soils.
  • For a beautiful display of spring flowers, it is not too late to plant bulbs of tulips, daffodils and crocus. Ideally bulbs should be planted as soon as possible, but they can be planted until the ground freezes. To soften soil, water areas a couple days before planting. Also try bulb augers for easier planting. Make a sketch of planting locations. Only the squirrels will remember and they aren't talking.


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