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Chicago Urban Gardening

The day to day experiences of a University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture Educator in Chicago, Illinois
Fall Leaves

In the Garden: Other Things Fall Besides Bulbs

Posted by Ron Wolford -

Cool, crisp weather has finally arrived after a very hot, humid and wet summer. Planting bulbs is probably the number one garden activity that takes place in the fall, but there are a number of other gardening and fall related activities to do.

Soil Testing

Fall is a good time to have your soil tested because labs are not as busy as they are in the spring. A soil test will give you the pH and potassium, phosphorus and organic levels in your soil. PH measures the acidity or alkalinity of your soil. Most plants will grow well at pH between 6.0 and 7.5. Fall is the best time to have your soil tested because the weather is more settled than in the spring and soil labs are not as busy. To prepare a soil sample, take a trowel and collect four to six soil samples from different locations in your garden or lawn in a bucket. Spread the sample on newspaper and allow it to dry. Place about a one half pint dried soil sample in a sealed plastic bag and send it to the lab. For a listing of local soil testing labs, go to Contact the lab before sending in the sample for any special instructions.

Get Ready for Frost

Get ready for frost. On average our first fall frost occurs around October 15, but we have had frost in September. First frosts usually occur when cool weather arrives with clear nights with light winds. Open grassy areas are most likely to have frost versus areas under trees that are protected because the trees keep heat from escaping. Plantings close to the foundation of your home often survive a first frost because of the heat given off from house. To protect plants cover them with blankets, newspaper, straw, sheets, tarps, boxes, or plastic sheeting. Apply the covers later in the afternoon and remove them in the morning. Floating row covers can also protect plants. This spun polyester material will raise the temperature 2 to 5 degrees F around the plants.

Plant a Green Manure crop

Green manure crops include clover, annual ryegrass, winter wheat, winter rye and buckwheat. Green manure crops turned into the soil in the spring will improve soil structure and will add organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Sow the seed thickly. Keep moist until germination occurs. Cut back plants that flower to prevent self-seeding. In early spring turn the green manure into the soil.

Transplant perennials

Transplant and divide perennials now. If you are planning to transplant established plants, cut them back by half and move to a prepared spot. Keep watered until the plant is established. Divide perennials when flowers get smaller, when the center of the plant dies out or when the plant just gets too big. All transplanting and dividing should be completed by October 1 to allow good root development before cold weather sets in.

Plant Trees

Plant trees, shrubs and evergreens through September. Planting during this time period will allow the plant to become established before winter sets in. Water plants every 7 to 10 days during dry weather until the ground freezes.

Start a Compost Pile

Fall is a good time to start thinking about starting a compost pile. As we go later into the fall, dying plant material is more readily available for composting, plus you have all the fallen leaves. For more information on composting, check out the University of Illinois Extension website: Composting Central

Garden Clean-up

Remove dead plants from the vegetable garden after frost. If plants were not diseased, they can be turned into the soil or placed in a compost pile. Leaving dead plants in the garden will provide a home for over wintering insects. Spread a 2 to 3 inch layer of organic matter over the garden and dig in. The garden will be ready for planting in the spring.

Prepare Amaryllis for Flowering

Stop watering amaryllis in late summer to revive the bulb for flowering. Let the leaves die. Cut the dead leaves off to within 2-3 inches of the bulb. Place the potted bulb in a cool, dark place like the basement for 6 to 8 weeks. Bring the amaryllis into a bright, warm area and start watering. Keep the soil moist. It should bloom in 4 to 8 weeks after the start of watering.

Repair Lawn

Autumn is the best time to repair lawns. Seeding bare spots in the lawn from early to mid-September will allow the new growth to have enough time to germinate, grow and harden off before cold temperatures arrive. There is less competition from weeds in the fall because a lot of the annual weeds are dying out. Plus we are usually blessed with cool temperatures in the fall which is great for growing grass. Ideally dig the soil to at least 6-8 inches deep, spread grass seed over the area and tamp down. Keep the soil moist until germination. Cover with weed free straw to conserve moisture. If you are laying down sod, water the new sod several times a day for 1-2 weeks until it begins to knit or take hold. Be sure that water goes down through the thick sod and moistens the soil underneath for good root development. Do not let sod dry out.

Dig Up Cannas and Caladiums

Dig up cannas, elephant ears and caladiums after a frost. Cut the stems back to about 4-6 inches and dig the plant up. Wash the soil off the bulbs and let them dry in the sun. Place the bulbs in a container and cover with peat moss or sawdust. Place the container in a cool room like your basement. Check the bulbs every 3 or 4 weeks for any signs of rotting. Throw the rotten bulbs away. If you notice any shriveled bulbs, mist them with a little water. Pot the bulbs up in March and place in the garden after the last spring frost.

Bring in Houseplants

Start to bring houseplants indoors before cool weather arrives. Spray the plants with a stream of water to wash off insects. Remove any dead leaves. Isolate the plants from your houseplant collection for two weeks to be sure they have no insect and disease problems.

Visit an Apple Orchard

Plan a visit to a local apple orchard. There are over 2500 apple varieties grown in the United States. Apple harvest can go from August through November. Find a local apple orchard at the University of Illinois Extension website Apples and More at

Visit a Pumpkin Farm

Take the family to a local pumpkin farm. Choose a pumpkin with a stem and never carry it by the stem. Pumpkins without a stem will not last long. Select a pumpkin with a flat bottom, so it will stand upright. Avoid pumpkins with holes, cuts or soft spots. These areas will rot. Light colored pumpkins are easier to carve because the skin is not as hard as darker orange colored ones, but they will not keep as well. Wash the pumpkin with warm water and let it dry before carving. For a listing of pumpkin farms, check out the University of Illinois Extension website Pumpkins and More at

For more gardening information, check out the University of Illinois Extension website: Hort Corner at

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