House plants lined up in a row

While the mild weather directs much of our attention to outdoor activities, indoor plants must not be overlooked.

Is it really October or did someone flip ahead a page on the calendar? Normally, daily low temperatures at this time of year would be in the 40 F – 45 F range, and given that the average date of first frost for much of the area is around Sept. 20, we are experiencing an unusually mild start to fall. As a gardener, I am not complaining, but it does alter the usual schedule of gardening activities. For one, I’d be pulling up all the tattered remnants of the “tender” crops, that is, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and the vine crops. Except for the vine crops which have been decimated by a combination of disease and pest issues, the other vegetables continue to flower and yield their fruit. So, I’ll have to wait before planting a cover crop of winter rye in those areas of the garden.

The mild weather does give us an opportunity to continue to do some other planting. These would be crops which I might be planting anyway at this time of year, but with soil temperatures still in the 60 F range, they’ll get off to a rapid start. Seeds to sow include leafy greens such as leaf lettuce, arugula, bok choy, and spinach, and a few root crops, notably radishes and possibly short season carrots. Should there be a sudden change in weather conditions, their growing season could be extended by covering the crops with row covers.

The warm conditions also extend the opportunity to plant trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials. Though I have no plans to do so, sowing grass seed for a new lawn or to fill in bare patches in the lawn seem worth the risk.


While the mild weather directs much of our attention to outdoor activities, indoor plants must not be overlooked. A quick glance at the many houseplants that I have given scant attention to in recent months indicates that most need to be groomed. This involves trimming away browned leaves, pruning back leggy plants, and cleansing dusty foliage. The latter is easily accomplished by placing potted plants in the shower for about a minute. Just be sure to cover the soil of each pot with plastic wrap or aluminum foil to keep it from being washed away. Timing is also important as those of the human species wait in line for their turn in the shower.

Grooming activities should also focus on pest infestations. Spider mites, mealy bugs, scale, and aphids have infested several of our plants. Therefore, applications of insecticidal soap or neem oil are on the agenda for this weekend.

Most indoor plants don’t need any fertilizer now since their growth slows with decreasing sunlight. The exceptions are flowering plants such as African violets that are still growing and flowering, but the frequency of fertilizing should be cut back. For most plants, the frequency of watering should also be cut back. To determine when to water potted plants, I give them the finger – no not that finger. I simply poke my digitus secundus, a.k.a. index finger, into the soil to a depth of about one inch. If soil feels dry, water is applied to the soil until the excess can be seen draining from the hole(s) at the bottom of the pot.

If the above activities are not enough to make one wish for the slower pace — at least gardening wise — of a “normal” October, here are some additional tasks:

  • Sort through the garlic bulbs which were prepared for winter storage and remove a few of those with the largest cloves. These are the ones which serve as the planting stock for next year’s crop. However, don’t wait until next year to plant garlic. That should be done later this month or in early November just before the ground freezes. Planting too early may result in shoot growth which will be damaged by hard freezes this winter.
  • Reduce the cutting height of the lawn mower to 2 or 2 1/2 inches. This will reduce the matting of grass under snow in winter, a condition which leaves the grass susceptible to diseases such as snow mold.
  • Sift some compost through a screen placed over a wheelbarrow to remove any large undecomposed particles. A screen can be made by attaching half-inch mesh hardware cloth to a wooden frame of 2-by-4-inch boards. This screened compost can be used as a component of potting soil for houseplants.
  • Used screened compost as a top dressing on lawns. To top dress, spread no more than 1/4 to 1/2 of an inch of compost over the grass and then lightly rake the lawn to move the compost down between the grass plants. Top dressing with compost not only provides nutrients for grass plants but also introduces beneficial microbes that help in decomposing grass clippings and any accumulated thatch. Thatch is made up of dead grass stems which are slow to decompose. Accumulation of a deep thatch layer interferes with movement of water and fertilizer into the soil and also provides a habitat for turf grass pests and diseases.
  • Go to the website for information on purchasing the 2022 UMass Garden Calendar. It’s hard to believe but this will be the 43rd edition of the popular calendar which has been an aid to so many gardeners over the years. Each month of the calendar a large colorful garden image, daily gardening tips, sunrise and sunset times, and space for your personal notes.

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.