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"The Dreaded November To Do List," by the Whistling Gardener

The recent freeze we experienced over this last weekend should have been a wakeup call for gardeners to take care of some chores before winter finally sets in, such as it is in the northwest. Here are some thoughts on the month of November in the garden.
Fall/Winter interest plants. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

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

The recent freeze we experienced over this last weekend should have been a wakeup call for gardeners to take care of some chores before winter finally sets in, such as it is in the Northwest.

I am sure that any gardener hailing from the Midwest or Northeast is probably snickering about now when we talk about “winter,” but the fact is that even in the Southwest where I grew up, plants still go dormant and experience winter.

Just like spring, summer, and fall, winter is a distinct season in the garden that requires us to perform certain tasks or suffer the consequences. Here are some thoughts on the month of November in the garden…

Visit the garden center and pick up some winter interest plants.  While November is certainly not winter, it is true that by now many of our perennials and deciduous trees and shrubs have lost their leaves and gone to sleep for the season. But, that’s not to say that the rest of the garden is snoozing away. The fact is that there are still plants out there that are wide awake, and believe it or not, even coming into bloom. 

Compared to the Midwest, we are so incredibly fortunate to be able to grow a wide variety of broadleaf evergreen shrubs, like Rhododendrons and Azaleas, Hollies, Daphne, Fatsia, Oregon Grape, Skimmia, and Sarcococca, to name just a few. Add to this broad palette of evergreen shrubs an equally large selection of perennials, like Hellebores, Bergenia, Wintergreen, Heucheras, Cyclamen, and several grasses, and suddenly our gardens can come alive with a rich mix of colorful foliage and textures and even a few bloomers. 

A garden center in November is a completely different creature than the one many gardeners are accustomed to seeing in spring. Nursery professionals do an amazing job of creating attractive displays that show off the many features of evergreen plants that are sure to entice you into transplanting some of their ideas into your own gardens. Bundle up and make it a point to check it all out. And remember, it is fine to plant in November as long as it is above freezing.

Take care of your lawn.  By now your lawn should be nice and green and lush, even if you failed to do any of the chores I recommended back in September. At this point the most important thing you can do is to apply a slow-release organic fertilizer (along with some lime), which will not make your lawn grow like crazy, but rather keep it green long into spring. If you failed to control broad-leaf weeds like clover and buttercup, the Bonide company makes a product called Weed Beater Ultra that works in cold weather. There is no need to cover the whole lawn, just spot spray where you have weeds - the less the better.

Treat deciduous shrubs, trees, and roses with a dormant spray.  This falls into the category of garden hygiene. Dormant sprays usually consist of a horticultural grade oil that when applied smoothers overwintering insects and eggs, along with a solution of copper which acts as a natural fungicide and helps control mildew and other leaf spotting diseases.  Make an application this month and then again in February.

Mulch and amend your soils.  It is so important to take care of our soils, whether they are used for growing veggies or just ornamentals. Organic material needs to be replenished, as do nutrients, and the best way to do it is in the fall with organic sources that will break down slowly over the winter. Adding natural sources of minerals, like Azomite, oyster shells, lime, bone meal, and kelp, now will give the soil microorganisms time to decompose them so they are ready to be absorbed in the spring when growth starts. Applying mulch (think compost) to the soil surface will smother weeds, reduce erosion and compaction, insulate the soil, and improve soil structure. One or two inches is all that you need. Doing these two things will put you miles ahead of the game come spring.

There are of course lots of other chores that can be done this month, such as cutting back roses by half, trimming hedges, raking leaves off the lawn (and out of the rain gutters), removing the fruited canes on raspberries and blackberries, cleaning up rotted fruit under fruit trees, sharpening and oiling shovels, and so on and so forth. Let’s face it, gardening is a year around sport and there is always something to do. For now, do your best, stay safe, and keep on gardening!

Sunnyside’s next (and last) free online class will be "Hellebores: Winter Jewels" on Saturday, November 13, 2021, at 10:00 am. For more information or to signup, visit

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

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