Garden Journal columnist Ron Kujawski began gardening at an early age on his family's onion farm in upstate New York. Although now retired, he spent most of his career teaching at the UMass Extension Service.

rake in the garden

Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer for many, but for gardeners, it means it's time for fall plantings.

Just as Memorial Day is viewed as the unofficial beginning of summer in the minds of many folks, including gardeners, Labor Day is typically regarded as the onset of autumn. Why not?

Autumn is when the harvest of many fruits and vegetables is at its peak, and right now I am harvesting daily. That’s why passersby may hear groans coming from our kitchen as my wife, CEO of food preservation in this household, just witnessed me hauling in another bushel or two of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, bush beans, sweet corn, blueberries, etc. On the other hand, she does embrace the thought that so much of our meals this winter will consist of food that came from the garden and not the grocery store.

Yet, while many of my efforts now are focused on harvesting, I realize that this is a good time to plant. No, I have not lost my mind. Well, maybe I have but, still, conditions are ideal for planting. This includes some vegetables with a short growing season and/or tolerance for exposure to frost. Among these are radishes, turnips, carrots, and many salad greens.

Labor Day also triggers in my mind that this is an ideal time to be planting or digging and transplanting herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees. Why so, if we are, or soon will be, heading toward cooler temperatures? For one, plants have been building up their reserve of carbohydrates through this growing season. Plants at this time of year are directing the energy in those reserves to root growth rather than stem growth. With soil temperatures still quite warm, roots will continue to grow, thus ensuring that the newly planted specimens will become well established before the soil freezes. In addition, as air temperatures cool down this month, plants lose less water through their leaves via transpiration than they do in hot weather. As such, there is less stress on these plants.

Before planting, amend the soil, if necessary, with compost or peat moss. As for fertilizer, apply an organic or slow-release fertilizer as recommended on the product label. However, if the soil is amended with compost prior to planting, fertilizer application may be delayed until next spring.

When planting be sure to set the plant at the same depth as it previously grew. Add water to the planting hole just before setting in the plant and then again just after planting. Depending upon rainfall, water the plants every few days if needed. Finally, apply a mulch of some sort, e.g. aged wood chips, shredded leaves, buckwheat hulls, or cedar bark, to the area around the plant but not against the stem of the plant.

Here are some other Labor Day weekend tasks:

  • Pinch off all flowers on tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and certain vine crops such as pumpkins and winter squash. It is unlikely that there is enough time left to the growing season for any newly set fruit to develop. On the other hand, I find that the fruit of summer squash and cucumber plants develop so quickly that it is worth letting these crops continue flowering, at least through mid-month.
  • Invest in a roll of floating row cover to extend the growing season for many vegetable crops. Row covers come in light weight, medium weight, and heavy weight types. The best frost protection comes from applying the heavy weight type over frost sensitive vegetables. It will protect plants to temperatures as low as 28 F, and possibly down to 24 F.
  • Dig and divide rhubarb now. Replant a few of the divisions and give the rest to friends to plant in their gardens.
  • Space daylilies about 1 1/2 feet apart when planting. They can tolerate part shade but place them in soil that drains well. In October, plant daffodil bulbs between the daylilies. After the daffodils finish their bloom next spring, the daylily foliage will come up and hide their fading foliage.
  • Divide hostas. Late summer is a good time to divide this garden favorite. Division can be done either by digging up entire plants and splitting the clumps into smaller pieces, each with some roots, or by slicing away portions of in-ground plants, again making sure to include some roots with each piece. Plant each division with the crown at ground level. Do NOT bury the crown.
  • Apply fertilizer to lawns. Use a slow-release fertilizer that has nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium ratio of 3-1-2, i.e. lawn fertilizers with analyses such as 15-5-10, 12-4-8 and 21-7-14. Follow the recommended applications rates stated on the bag.
  • Examine those houseplants recently brought back indoors after their summer vacation outdoors. It is not unusual for these plants to harbor pests such as aphids, scale, and spider mites which they entertained over the past few months. If about to bring in the plants now, first give them a good blast of water from the garden hose. This will dislodge many of the hitchhikers. Plants brought in earlier would also benefit from a blast of water, perhaps in the shower or from a brief trip outdoors. In addition, spray infested plants with either insecticidal soap or neem oil. Continue to inspect all houseplants routinely. It’s much easier to control pests and sustain healthy plants if the pests are eradicated before their population builds.

Enjoy these labors this Labor Day weekend!