Cleaning garden tools, digging and storing dahlias, and planting garlic are some of the gardening tips for this month.
Begin preparing tools for storage by cleaning them once you're finished with them. Wipe the soil off shovels, spades, and trowels using a rag or wire brush, then wipe blades with an oiled cloth. Make sure pruners are free from dirt and plant debris, and wipe down the blades with the oiled cloth. Empty any pots of dead plants and soil, adding the debris to the compost pile unless the plants were diseased. In that case, dispose of the plants in the garbage or a location far away from your garden. Rinse pots, or better yet, soak them in a bucket of water to which some bleach (one part to nine parts water) has been added. Soak for a half hour or so, then rinse well.
When the first frost blackens the foliage of dahlias (or if a hard freeze is predicted), cut off the stems about 6 inches above the tubers. Carefully dig the clumps with a spade or fork, and rinse them off. Let them dry out of direct sun and wind for a day (not too long or they'll begin to shrivel). Store the tuber clumps whole, or carefully separate the tubers from the stem, making sure to include any "eyes" (small, raised nubs near where the tubers attach to the main stem) with each tuber. These are the future sprouts. Store tubers in ventilated plastic bags filled with peat moss, vermiculite, or sawdust. Place bags in a box and keep them in a dark, 35- to 50-degree F location. Check every week or two to make sure they aren’t too wet, or shriveling from dryness. Plant garlic now for harvesting next summer. Purchase garlic sold specifically for planting, locally adapted varieties from garden stores being best. Commercial, non-organic, supermarket garlic may have been treated to inhibit sprouting. Break the garlic head into individual cloves, keeping the largest ones for planting. (Use the small cloves for cooking.) Add compost before planting. Plant cloves about 2 inches deep, and 3 inches apart with the pointed side up. Try some different varieties to see which you prefer. Mulch the bed well with straw.
Avoid pruning woody plants now because it will encourage a flush of new growth that may be damaged by the upcoming cold temperatures. Instead, wait until late winter or early spring to prune most trees and shrubs. (Exceptions to this rule are spring-blooming shrubs, such as lilacs and rhododendrons, which should be pruned after flowering.)
If you test your soil and add any needed amendments now, the soil will be ready for planting when you are in the spring. Some amendments take time to break down and become available to plants. If you have a nearby state university Extension Service office, you can take advantage of their low-priced soil testing service. Or get a do-it-yourself kit. Most plants prefer a slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8 (a pH of 7 is neutral). New England soils tend to be acidic and frequently require the addition of lime. Soil can vary even within a yard, so if you notice different characteristics of the soil in different beds, test them separately.
If you haven't yet done so, cover your late crops of lettuce and spinach with polyester row covers to keep them warmer as the night temperatures dip close to freezing. The covers also will keep the leaves from getting damaged by any heavy rains.