University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Fall Article


Dr. Vern Grubinger, Vegetable and Small Fruits Specialist, and
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

Halloween isn't just for kids.  While you may be too old for trick-or-treating, that doesn't mean you should forget about celebrating.  And the nice thing for gardeners is that you can find most of the holiday decorations in your own back yard.

Start with pumpkins.  Chances are you grew some in the backyard just to carve into jack-o-lanterns or there's a grower that has some nearby.

The best pumpkins for carving have a flattened end to prevent tipping, but any size or shape will work. A good solid handle will make it easy to open and close the jack-o-lantern lid if you plan to put a candle inside.  When cleaning the pumpkin out, don't forget to separate the seeds from the meat.  These make a delicious snack when lightly stir-fried in oil and salted.

Ornamental gourds also make nice Halloween decorations.  Harvest these when the stem of the fruit starts to dry, taking care not to bruise the gourd.  Allow to dry for about a week in a warm, dry place, then wax and polish.  Or use steel wool to smooth the surface for painting or staining.

Tie dried cornstalks in bunches to decorate your porch or entryway or hang Indian corn from your front door.  Spruce up your garden scarecrow or add cutouts of bats, goblins, witches, and other spooky creatures to your garden to "scare" trick-or-treaters.

If you haven't already done so, get those spring-flowering bulbs in the ground soon.  The more time they have for fall root growth, the better the display in the spring.  In addition to the usual narcissus (or daffodils), tulips, and fragrant hyacinths, you might want to try some of the less common blue squills, white snowdrops, or miniature irises.

When planting, dig the hole about two to three times the bulb diameter.  Don't forget to add a little phosphorus in the form of superphosphate or bone meal.  However, if rodents are a problem in your area, forget the bone meal as they will dig your bulbs right up!  In that case, use rock phosphate instead or "bulb food," which you usually can find in many garden outlets.

If you have a water garden, it's time to put it to bed for the winter.  First, move aquatic plants indoors.  Over winter, keep plants as warm as possible and in a tub filled with several inches of water.  Drain smaller gardens and pipes to prevent freezing and cracking.

For deeper ponds, some plants, such as hardy water lilies, may be sunk to the bottom, as long as the surface of the pond doesn't completely freeze over.  To prevent this, use a pond heater or insulate the sides of the pond with bags of pine needles or leaves.  Koi and goldfish can be left in the pond if it won't ice over.

Some insects, such as stalk borers and cucumber beetles, overwinter in garden residues or nearby weeds.  Mowing weedy sites around the garden and tilling in or removing plant residues and composting them can help control these pests.  Burning these residues just causes air pollution as well as wastes the carbon that helps improve soil quality. Corn borers can spend the winter inside corn stubble, so plowing under the stalks is important to reduce corn borer populations next year.

Other insects, including the Colorado potato beetle, white grubs, and cutworms, overwinter right in the soil and not the plant residues above ground.  Disturbing the soil with fall tillage can destroy the overwintering forms of these pests.  However, don't forget to protect your fall-plowed soil from erosion by mulching with straw or leaves or by sowing a winter rye or oats cover crop if there's still time.  These can be planted throughout September and even into early October in warmer locations.  Use higher seeding rates as it gets later in the fall to assure that a decent cover gets established

Prior to sowing a winter cover crop add a light application of compost or well-rotted manure to the garden.  Applying it now instead of in the spring will minimize the need for extra tillage next year and speed up planting preparations if the soil remains wetter than ideal.  If you have not done so already, remove raspberry canes that fruited this summer and are now dead.  Prune out excess canes that came up this year, leaving an average of four to six of the strongest new canes per square foot.

If your blueberry mulch is getting thin, get some more woodchips or sawdust to rejuvenate it.  A mixture of the two is ideal although sawdust should be allowed to age for a year or two before it is applied as a mulch.  Pine needles or a thick layer of shredded deciduous leaves also make a good mulch.

If the soil pH is higher than desirable, above 5.5, than fall is a good time to spread a light layer of sulfur to acidify the soil.  Do this before putting on any new mulch.  Both mulch and sulfur should be spread in a very wide circle around plants so that the roots can grow out to their mature width, which eventually will be six to eight feet across.

It's too early to mulch strawberry plantings, but not too early to be on the lookout for clean straw mulch. If you find some, stack it and cover it near the garden in preparation for this late November task.  Straw is better than hay for mulching because it is more like a bunch of hollow tubes, and these provide good insulation.

Dig up soil and store it to use later as winter protection for your roses.   Too often gardeners simply scoop soil from around plants to hill on top of crowns after plants are dormant.  Although this helps the crowns, it may expose the roots to drying and cold temperatures.

Late autumn is a good time to fertilize shade trees.  Although they may appear dormant as leaves turn color and drop, their roots--80 percent of which are within the top foot of soil--are still full of life.

The most effective, and easiest, means of applying fertilizer is to surface broadcast applications of readily soluble or slow-release, high nitrogen fertilizer (without herbicides) over the entire root zone.  Follow the manufacturer's recommended application rate stated on the bag.

Other activities for October: send away for seed catalogs; map or tag your perennials; place plant guards around fruit trees to prevent damage from mice, voles, and rabbits; remove dead leaves and debris from rain gutters to prevent ice build-up this winter.

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