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"October is the month of change in the garden and the garden center," by the Whistling Gardener

Of all the seasons of the year, fall is probably my most favorite and the month of October is when it all starts to happen (although this year one could argue that fall actually started in September).  The garden comes alive again in the fall and it shifts into high gear in October.
Chief Joseph. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Of all the seasons of the year, fall is probably my most favorite and the month of October is when it all starts to happen (although this year one could argue that fall actually started in September).

There is a crispness in the air, new vibrant colors on the trees, fresh growth on our summer dormant lawns, mums and asters in full bloom, pumpkins and gourds everywhere (along with way too many spider webs and clogged up gutters), fresh rainfall, colorful berries, and of course pansies and violas.

The garden comes alive again in the fall and it shifts into high gear in October.

After the highly unseasonable rain and even frost that we have experienced recently, I have started to clean out my summer annuals and veggies in order to prep the ground for some fall color and hardy veggies, like garlic, broccoli, and shallots.

There is a certain catharsis in pulling out all those overgrown annuals and mildew ridden squash plants and plunging in a few spring blooming bulbs and some pansies over the top.

It’s a fresh look that will entertain me for the next six months and it always seems like a very good return for the effort it takes. Don’t forget that October is the month to plant your bulbs!

My containers get an overhaul as well. As much as I hate to part company with my eight feet tall red bananas, and equally as tall Egyptian papyrus, they just seem out of place on a cool, frosty morning - therefore it is time for them to head to the compost pile.

Canna lilies will be dug up, hosed off, divided, and then stored in 15 gallon nursery pots where they will be covered with damp newsprint and kept in a cool greenhouse where they won’t freeze. Cannas in the ground simply need to be mulched and they will be fine for the winter.

Papyrus and red bananas on the other hand will never make it through the winter, so just treat them as a summer love affair and give them the heave ho.

For the rest of my yard I mostly let it go to sleep naturally; leaving the perennials to set seed for the birds, blowing the leaves off my driveway and into the beds to supply nutrients and insulation, and after fertilizing the lawn with a balanced organic fertilizer, I mow it an inch higher than I did for the summer. Oh, I almost forgot! I also drain out the hoses and put away the patio furniture.

As for the garden center, there are also lots of changes that take place in October. For starters, many of the tired summer blooming shrubs and perennials are moved to the back where we hope to clear them out at half price. We call this our “Take Me Home Please” department and gardeners can find some great deals on tired plants that simply need a new home. Most nurseries have a clearance area where you can find some great bargains.

October is also when conifers and broadleaf evergreens, once again, take front stage with their coats of many colors. "Carsten’s Winter Gold" mugo pine is already showing its winter gold highlights as is the coveted "Chief Joseph" lodge pole pine. Conifers come in an array of winter colors from green to blue, yellow, orange, and plum.

The same can be said for several broadleaf evergreens, like Leucothoe and Nandina. These shrubs take on an incredible color change when the nights get cool, changing from plain boring green to shades of bronze and dazzling red. There are even some perennials, like Bergenia and Wintergreen, that sport a whole new personality during the dark and cool months of winter. Planting a few of these in containers is a great way to keep the garden interesting.

October also marks the reintroduction into the garden center of winter heather, rhodies, and camellias, all of which now have their buds set for spring and in the case of heather, are actually blooming with the start of some color that will persist for almost six months.

Pieris "Passion Frost” is another broadleaf evergreen shrub that is covered with buds in October that will finally open to blooms in February and March. Between Camellias, rhodies, and Pieris, I think the sight of these buds gives me so much hope and anticipation for the forthcoming spring that it makes the end of summer seem somewhat irrelevant.

October ushers in lots of changes for us gardeners and for garden centers. Take advantage of the scattered sunny days and embrace the change that this month offers us. You won’t be sorry you did.

Sunnyside will be hosting two free classes - "Fall Foliage & Winter Wonders" on Saturday, October 12th, 2019, at 10:00 am; and "Winter Wildlife" on Sunday, October 13th, at 11:00 am.  For more information visit

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA and can be reached at

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