Garden Clean-Up Tips

Perform these tasks this fall in the garden


It's been a long hot summer, and now that autumn is here and the gardens are winding down, I am tired! I don't know about you, but I lose steam at this time of year and don't have much energy or enthusiasm to do any intensive garden clean-up. Luckily for us, you don't need to. I'm of the mind, that less is more, and that Mother Nature can certainly take care of herself without any help from me.

Fall Garden Clean-Up Tips

My gardens are wild and informal, so I don't have to do any major cleaning up to make things look good. I usually spread out my clean-up chores over a course of a month or so, but if you were going to follow all my tips, it shouldn't take more than a day or two to put your gardens to bed for the winter. Granted, if you have a large estate, it may take longer, but we have an acre and about a 1/3 are gardens at this point, so if I can do my clean-up in a day, the majority of you can too.

What to do with all those leaves?
For the most part, I mow right over any leaves in the yard mulching them as I go. This will allow the leaves to break-down faster and add nutrients back to the soil. But autumn is a prime time to add material to your compost pile, so feel free to add some of the shredded leaves to the pile as well. I also like to reserve a small amount to help insulated tender plants once we've had a hard freeze.

What if I had any diseased plants?
Whether it be in the flower garden or the vegetable garden, all diseased plants or foliage should be removed from the gardens as the pathogens and bacteria from those plants can over winter in the garden and wreck havoc next year. If you've had a continual problem with a certain plant for more than a year or two, I would remove the plant completely and try something else. It's hard to do, but sometimes you just got to do it for the sake of the health of the rest of the garden. Diseased plants should not be composted unless you are an expert composter and your pile reaches a consistent 120 degrees in the center of the pile. To be safe, I discard all my diseased plants and foliage in the garbage can or I burn them whenever we have scrap wood to get rid of.

Should I be pruning now?
Generally, no. Autumn is not a good time to be pruning anything. Pruning stimulates growth and makes it susceptible to winter die back. The only exception is if you feel you need to prune something because it may get damaged by heavy winter snow. In that case, I would wait to prune the plant, tree, or shrub until after it has completely gone dormant. This is usually after you have had a hard freeze (temperatures below 30 degrees).

What should I do with my perennials?
If you live in zone 6 or colder, you may not want to cut back any perennials until spring. For one thing, the seed heads are food for many birds and other critters. And secondly, the dead foliage helps insulated the plant from cold winter weather. Anytime I have ever cut back my plants in the fall, I have been sorry, because I inevitably step on something in the spring by mistake. So, I generally do not cut any perennials back until spring when I begin to see new growth. If the dead foliage bothers you, by all means cut the plant back, being careful not to harm the crown of the plant and make sure the plant is marked so you don't step on it later. One exception would be ornamental grasses. They will survive much better if you wait to cut them back in the spring. Besides, the foliage is beautiful to look at.

What's required to clean-up a vegetable garden bed?
This is the area where I spend the most time doing garden clean-up. For the most part, everything must be pulled up once it has stopped producing, with the exception of a few perennial vegetables like asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries, for example. I like to pull up all the spent plants by the roots so that there is a reduced chance of pest and disease problems next year. Compost what you can. Clean any garden stakes with a 10% bleach solution in case any diseases may decide to over winter on them. I am not a big fan of tilling the soil as I believe too much tilling can actually damage the soil structure over time, so I will add a 2" layer of compost on top of the vegetable beds and let the worms do the work. If I had a problem with weeds that year, I will put several layers of black and white newspaper down over the bed before putting on the compost. The newspaper will help block the sun from reaching the soil. No sun, no weed seeds can germinate. The newspaper will break-down over time and the earthworms will be attracted to it and help till it into the soil along with the compost. 3-4 layers will usually break down very quickly over the winter with very little turning that needs to be done in the spring.

How should I treat my annuals?
If you want your annuals to spread and multiply, leave the seed heads where they are or collect the seeds and start them yourself in pots the following spring or try the winter sowing method. If you have a bed devoted to annuals, you can pretty much treat it like you do your veggie beds. A lot of times, I just cut off the annuals at the base of the plant and leave the roots. The roots will compost themselves over the winter months and add nutrients to the soil. Plus, you are not pulling up valuable soil with the roots. Again, if you had any disease problems, dispose of the whole plant, roots and all.

What should I do with my bulbs?
If you have any tender bulbs or tubers that cannot survive the winter months in the ground, you may want to dig them up and try storing them for the winter, or you can leave them be. They will turn to mush and add nutrients to the soil.

Weeds, Compost and Mulch?
As much as I try, I always have a few weeds in the fall that need to be cleaned up. It's better to pull weeds as soon as possible, or at least before they set seed. If any weeds got away from you over the summer, use this time to pull them up. They are usually easy to pull up at this time because it's rainier in the fall and the soil is softer. Use a hoe to get the smaller weeds and this will help break up the top layer of soil and mulch, which is a good thing. If you use a lot of mulch each year, it can become compacted over time, especially if you don't have a lot of activity going on in your soil to help break it all down. If you've followed my blog and web site for any amount of time, you should not be having that problem.

Even if you don't have any weeds to get rid of, I like to use a hoe slightly over the whole garden to help incorporate some of the mulch into the soil. This will help the mulch to break down and nourish the soil. You most likely will be adding more mulch in the beds in the spring to make them look pretty, so there is no harm in mixing it up a little bit in the fall. After I've done that, I will cover the whole garden with an inch or two of compost. Compost is the best fertilizer a gardener can use. Plants use up nutrients all summer, so you need to add that back to the soil. The best way is with compost. It takes time to break down, so fall is an ideal time to add it to the garden. Compost will also help loosen up the soil and insulate the plants over the winter months.

If you have an excess of leaves to use up, you can shred them up and add them to the gardens as an additional source of nutrients or for insulating tender plants. This is best done after you've had one or two hard freezes. Mulching sooner could encourage rodents to nest in the leaf material.

What should I do with my container plantings?
If the pots in question contain annuals only, put the spent plants and soil in the compost pile. After they have broken down, the finished compost can be added to future pots or to the garden, so nothing is wasted. If your containers contain perennials that can over winter outdoors in containers, I usually like to gather them in one area and insulate them with shredded leaves. Having them in one place also makes them easier to water and easier to protect them from critters that may like to feed on the roots and stems of perennials when their regular food source is scarce.

If you have permanent plantings in pots, such as with small trees and shrubs, you don't really need to do much of anything unless they have become root bound and need to be put in a larger pot. The bigger the pot they are in, the better they can survive outdoors in that pot. This may mean you need to put a small shrub or tree in a half barrel or full barrel sized container. In general, most trees and shrubs can be grown in pots all year round without a problem providing they are hardy to your area.

And of course, if you have any fragile clay or ceramic pots, you will need to bring them inside over the winter or they will crack.

To clean pots, I usually just brush out any lose dirt. If there were disease or pest problems, wash pots with a 10% bleach solution. I like to take care of the cleaning in the fall since spring is usually so busy.

What do I do with garden art and birdbaths?
If you have a lot of garden junk like I do, most of it stays outside for the winter, with the exception of my bowling ball garden spheres. They come inside because they can crack during freezing temperatures. If anything is breakable, irreplaceable or fragile, by all means bring it inside. If you want to preserve a paint job, it's usually better to bring it inside for the winter. Unheated garages or garden sheds are usually sufficient.

As far as birdbaths go, I encourage everyone to have at least one hooked up in the winter with a heater attached to it to keep the water from freezing. If you have a natural water source nearby then that is not an issue. Birdbaths should be emptied, cleaned with a 10% bleach solution, dried and stored indoors for the winter.

What if I want to over winter tender plants indoors?
You may like to move your house plants outdoors in the spring, so don't forget to move them back inside before temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Look over the plants thoroughly and drench the soil with water to flush out any pests that may be hiding in the soil. Use this time to re-pot the plant if it has grown root bound or if you are concerned about pests hiding in the soil.

You may need to prune these plants back by as much as half, as they will adapt to lower light conditions more easily that way. Research the specific plants you have to determine how much can be cut back safely without harming the plant. You may need to cut them back in stages to avoid shock.

Isolate any newly brought in plants for a week or two until you are sure they don't have any bugs on them. You don't want to infect any other plants you may have in your home. If you do notice a pest problem, try spraying the plant with water first to get rid of them. If that doesn't work, organic bug sprays suitable for indoor plants can be purchased to help with the problem.

Now is also a great time to take cuttings from plants like coleus and sweet potato vine to be grown as house plants. They can be rooted in water and then potted up to enjoy all winter long. More cuttings can be taken in spring for plants to be planted in the landscape in June.

Can I plant anything now?
Fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs. Plants are usually on clearance at this time, so it can be a huge savings to plant in the fall. Perennials can also be planted now. The rule of thumb is to plant 4-6 weeks before your ground freezes. Any newly planted trees and shrubs will need a little extra protection from winds and heavy snows if that is a problem in your area. We usually construct sandwich boards that can be sunk into the ground a few inches and that are several inches taller than the plant we are trying to protect. If you have rabbits or other critters that will nibble on the tender stems and bark of newly planted shrubs and trees, it's very important to protect the plant with chicken wire so they can't chew on the plants.

Be sure to mulch any new plantings after the ground has frozen to prevent them from heaving over the winter months. Since they have not grown roots deep into the soil yet, they are more susceptible to heaving.

Fall is also an excellent time to plant spring blooming bulbs. Check out this article on how to do that.

There you have it; my tips on cleaning up and preparing your plants and garden for winter. You may not need to perform all these tasks, but now you are prepared for almost any scenario.

Happy gardening!

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