Don’t panic, but it’s time to start your autumn gardening chores

Cooler nights bring questions, and we have been having cooler nights. I note more than a hint of panic, folks. Relax. The leaves have really not even started to turn color and lawns are still growing.

Let’s start with lawn questions. There were several about fertilizing, probably due to the influence of Madison Avenue. There is always inventory left in the fall that has to be moved, and this results in planted articles insisting fall is the time to fertilize your lawn with nitrogen-laden, synthetic fertilizer.

Here in Alaska, we don’t use synthetic fertilizers, only organic, but even if we did, we would realize the flush of growth they would cause is not what we want as we go into winter. Still, let me make it simple. Microbe foods can be put down any time of the year without causing the flush of growth and drain-off of chemical fertilizers.

So, this is a fine time to apply organic microbe foods, as most of the microbes stay active during the winter months. This time of year I would use soybean meal or fish-based foods that encourage fungal growth and shy away from molasses, which encourages bacterial growth. The later is easy and can be encouraged in the spring. Fungi take time.

Aeration? Sure, this is a fine time to aerate your lawn. When the leaves fall and are mulched, they will fill the holes. This adds organic matter, aka microbe food, into the soil, which is great. Of course, aeration also helps alleviate compaction after a summer of hard play, and since you won’t be walking or playing on the lawn all winter, aeration will enable all of the soil food web to take advantage of the better conditions and improve soil structure.

Seeding? The issue is, do we have 15 non-frost days left, because that is about how long it takes for grass seed to germinate. You will need to make sure the soil is damp during this period, too. I say go for it; what doesn’t germinate this season, theoretically will still sprout, only next spring.

Mowing? Continue to mow the lawn, but wait for the dew to dry for safety and aesthetic reasons. Don’t worry about those mushrooms. Either they are part of the system of decaying organic matter or they are feeding your trees and shrubs. I raise my blade a bit this time of year. When grass is short, the leaves blow off the lawn. Longer grass holds the leaves better, so more of them get mulched into the lawn.


OK, vegetable garden questions start with slugs. We have an invasion of them this time of year. You may see them on your windows when it rains, populating driveways and sliming up the bike trails. They are everywhere. Frankly, there is not much your can do other than continue to put traps at the outside edges of your gardens. Locate and hand pick those around your plants. Don’t kill daddy longlegs.

Overall, vegetable gardens need to be harvested, so do so. As I always ask: “What are you waiting for?” The only crops that get an answer on this are Brussels sprouts and potatoes. Both need cold weather to sweeten up.

This is an excellent time to put organics on vegetable beds to feed the microbes so you have great nutrient availability for you plants next spring and summer. Applying soybean meal, non-sulfur molasses, alfalfa meal and other organic microbe foods now will allow the soil food web to work them into the root zone. No rototilling. Just put it on the surface. Later, you should also mulch with mulched leaves and grass clippings.

Flowers? Now is when you should pot up plants you want to take indoors if you have not already. Coleus, fibrous begonias, impatiens and pelargoniums will bloom under lights all winter. Petunias and others can give you another month of blooms before they either fade or become too much of a bother to keep indoors. Snapdragons, sweet peas and other plants will re-flower indoors given enough light if you remove seed pods now. In any case, you should isolate plants for a week in the garage to catch hitchhiking slugs. A spray with a Neem product might make some sense as they acclimate (de-harden off) to the indoors.

As for collecting perennial flower seeds, each plant is different. Perennial seeds are usually brown or black when ready to harvest and unripe seeds are usually white. In any case, they must go through the winter outdoors or in a simulated cold environment.

Finally, while I call for you not to panic, it is time to start cleaning up. Organize your tool shed or closet to receive stuff. Put hoses that aren’t needed away. The same goes for sprinklers. The days of watering the lawn are over for the season.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar:

Alaska Botanical Garden: Garlics are for sale, and you can pick them up starting Sept. 17. Check it out at The garden is open. What a great place to wander (social distanced, of course).

Trees and shrubs: Plant away. Use the native soil. Staking is a no-no. Let the plant bend in the wind and develop a good root system.

More trees and shrubs: The lilac leaf roller invasion caused much less damage this year without mass spraying. Check out your birches. Unlike past years, leaves seem to be in much better shape, again without spraying. That is nature for you.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He is the author of a series of books on organic gardening available at Amazon and elsewhere. He co-hosts the "Teaming With Microbes" podcast.