October Tips For Northern Gardeners: Soil, Planting and Moving

And so it is autumn; the fruitful soil has yielded another harvest, and barns are full.

Fields have a clean-swept took-over hill, and dale nature indulges in one last magnificent pageant. So intense are the fall colors that at night the pure yellows give off a golden glow.

October Northern PointersPin

In the garden, gaps appear in the rows of vegetable rows, and the flower display is patchy, with only a few blooms, many stiff, dry stems, and bare earth. For many plants, the cycle of the season has run its course.

Improving The Soil

What we do to the soil now will greatly influence next year’s harvest and the years to come.

Cover light soils, particularly those on slopes, with rye or ryegrass (1/2 pound per 100 square feet).

Soils of heavy clay or silt should be dug at least 12” inches deep, and the earth was thrown up in rough ridges, exposing the soil to the ice and snow of winter.

Hydrated lime, applied at the rate of 30 pounds per 1,000 square feet at digging time, will help improve soil structure.

On a slope, dig the ridges crosswise; then cover with manure, straw, leaves, or compost if available.

Make this mulch thick enough to prevent erosion but not so deep that it prevents the soil from freezing, as frost is a valuable agent in improving heavy soils.

Fall Planting

Take advantage of good weather in early fall to do all the planting possible.

As discussed in the September Pointers, evergreens may still be transplanted except in the more northerly sections.

Deciduous trees and shrubs may now be transplanted in all sections, as well as fruit trees and bushes.

Plants set out in the fall have a head start over those in the spring. Nurserymen are less rushed now, too.

Birch and dogwood trees from woodlands should not be transplanted in the fall, although nursery-grown specimens should be successful.

Magnolias, sour gum, Oriental cherry, hawthorn, and firethorn (pyracantha, and cotoneaster are best transplanted in the spring.


Fall is the ideal time to set out lilacs. Order them by name, not by color.

The following varieties are among the better hybrids:

  • Etna, a red lilac
  • Edith Cavell, white
  • Lucie Baltet, pale lavender
  • Adelaide Dunbar, dark red
  • President Lincoln, blue

For something different, try one or two Preston hybrids.

Lilacs are grafted onto privet or raised from cuttings. If raised from cuttings, the lilacs are their roots.

When planting grafted lilacs, set the plants deep enough, so the lilac stems are beneath the soil.

These lilac stems will soon root and smother the privet roots so that you will have no privet suckers to battle.

Moving Shrubs And Trees

Heavy shrubs and good-sized trees may now be moved successfully; you need not wait until all the leaves have fallen.

You will need a ball of soil around the roots if the tree is from 15’ to 20’ feet tall, with a trunk 4” inches or more in diameter.


Start some 3’ feet away from the trunk and dig a circular trench, cutting all roots off cleanly.

Then using a digging fork, comb the soil from the roots to reduce the ball of soil by a foot or more all the way around.

Keep the loose roots covered with burlap. Then, work under the ball and sever the lower roots.

Bind the ball tightly with burlap and rope to keep it compact while the tree is moved.


Smaller trees (10’ to 12’ feet high) may be moved without a ball of soil, provided as many roots as possible are lifted.

The roots should then be immersed in thick mud bath before moving the tree to a new spot.


The soil should be flooded around the newly planted tree, which should be securely staked. Maple, pin oak. ash, elm, linden, poplar, sycamore, and ginkgo trees may be handled in this fashion.


Chrysanthemums are almost the only flowers in bloom outdoors unless you can grow late-sown annuals in your region.

If the chrysanthemum plants are not too tall and you followed earlier pointers about planting chrysanthemums in readiness for fall transplanting, you can now move them to any location desired.

Water the plants two days before lifting so the soil will hold together. Replant firmly and water.

Late-blooming varieties may be lifted, potted, and taken indoors to flower.

It is not necessary to use large pots; the 6-inch or 7-inch size is sufficient. Some roots and excess soil can be removed without any effect on the plant.

Water the plants after potting and keep the plants out of the sun for a few days.

Vegetable Harvest

Store beets, carrots, and potatoes in a cold cellar if available or in an outdoor pit. Beets and carrots may be stored together.

For a large pit, dig a trench 1’ foot or more deep and 2’ feet wider. Pile the roots in the shape of a tepee and cover them with hay or straw, then with soil.

For an opening at one end, you can use hay and boards. If you have only a small quantity of roots to store, you may want to use a half barrel.

Sink it in the ground. leaving 6” inches or more above ground level.

Pile the roots between layers of hay and cover the container with a wooden cover. In freezing weather, you can pile the bay on top.

If you store cabbage in a trench. lay the heads facing down and cover them with hay or straw and then a layer of soil.

Lawn Care

There’s still time to make over your lawn. Weed eradication with 2, 4-D is possible with weeds in active growth.

This has little effect on old hard-stemmed weeds now. Grub-proofing, or protecting the soil from Japanese beetle grubs, must not be neglected.

For this, use either DDT or lead arsenate, the latter applied at the rate of I pound per 100 square feet.

You can mix the powder with a shovelful of dry sand or sifted ashes for easier distribution. Or you can dissolve it in 3 or 4 gallons of water and apply with a watering can or sprayer.

Apply DDT as a 10% percent dust at 6 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Mixing it with a carrier, as in the case of lead arsenate, assists in even distribution.

The powder does not dissolve in water unless you purchase it with a wetting agent. Both DDT and lead arsenate are effective in the soil for at least three years.


I want to repeat my warning against late watering. Nature’s tendency in the fall, at least in this region, is toward dryness, which, like frost, induces ripening of the tissues in preparation for winter. You can follow this trend to a degree.

Do not water established rhododendrons, other broad-leaved evergreens, or conifers, especially where these are inclined to be tender.

Late October or early November is soon enough in this region to get sufficient moisture into the soil before a heavy ground freeze.

There will be little danger of injury to plants and shrubs kept under a mulch. Plants that start the winter poorly ripened are much more vulnerable to injury.


Covering plants too soon against cold is a mistake.

True tender plants must be protected where exposure to low temperatures will cause injury, but hardy and semi-hardy plants do not need this early protection. A killing frost is a matter of degree.

A frost that will kill dahlia tops, tomato vines, zinnias, and petunias will have little effect on chrysanthemums and no effect on blue hydrangeas, buddleia, or climbing hybrid tea roses, all of which are supposed to be semi-hardy.

But hardiness is relative; what makes one plant hardy and another tender is not fully known.

Rock garden plants, other herbaceous perennials, and certain evergreens and roses are best left uncovered until December or even January.

Winter injury comes in late winter, not early winter. Mulching the ground over the roots of newly set-out plants is something else again.

Here you prolong root action to help the plants become established.

Your particular region will determine the winter use you make of your cold frame. If the vegetables mentioned under September Pointers are given adequate nightly protection, they can be picked for another month.

Chrysanthemums and plants which are not dependably hardy with you can be overwintered in the cold frame.

The amount of protection possible will depend upon the depth inside the frame. On the same level as the ground outside, you will get little protection from cold. But there is more protection at a depth of from 12” to 18” inches.

If manure or soil is mounded around the sides of the frame and mats or other covering placed over the sash, pansies, daisies, forget-me-nots, and similar plants can be wintered over.

Greenhouse Pointers

A greenhouse is akin to a cold frame concerning temperature control. The coating applied to glass to shade plants can now be removed.

Perhaps you have chrysanthemums in your greenhouse now and are pinning a follow-up for winter with such plants as cineraria, schizanthus, and snapdragon, in addition to those potted up outdoors such as geraniums, Christmas cherries, and begonias.

Watering and ventilating must be provided carefully. Ventilate only a little in the morning. as the temperature rises; wet down walks on bright days and adjust the amount of watering to plants as needed.

Floors and foliage should be dry at night before the greenhouse is closed up; wet foliage at night invites a world of trouble in the way of disease.