7 fall-cleanup tasks you shouldn’t skip, with ken druse

Fallen leaves under copper beechAN ADVANTAGE to having 30 years of fall garden cleanups behind me: I’ve learned what really counts–the sort of “or else” tasks for fall. My friend and garden-writer colleague Ken Druse is similarly qualified, and was my guest on radio this week to talk strategy for putting the garden to bed. Our combined tips of tasks you shouldn’t skip (with our permission to skip the rest!):

prefer the podcast?

KEN DRUSE, author of 18 garden books and creator of the “Real Dirt” weekly podcast, was the guest on this week’s public-radio show. It’s a must-listen, and you can do so anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The October 14, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX. Details on getting Ken’s weekly podcast, “Real Dirt,” are at the bottom of the page.

our fall garden-cleanup tips

KEN CALLS HIMSELF “a slob,” and I call myself a “spot cleaner,” meaning at cleanup time, neither one of us treats the garden like a living room that we’re vacuuming. We don’t go wall-to-wall, but rather pick it apart slowly, with a method to our madness:

Leave especially ornamental or wildlife-friendly plants standing: “Some things are pretty,” says Ken, “and some provide cover for animals and insects—hopefully the animals and insects you want to encourage, but of course you can’t choose.”  Save what looks good—to you or the birds—as long as you can, particularly seed-laden ones (assuming they are not the weeds you’re trying to combat—more on that below).

Remove sickly things first of all; destroy the debris: When cutting back and raking, focus first on what was ailing. “Like if the peonies turned black,” says Ken, “I’ll cut back that foliage and put it in the trash, not the compost.” Lilacs (which may have had powdery mildew); fruit trees such as apples (with their many possible issues); roses and irises are other common culprits. “If the leaves of the bearded iris have any evidence of borers—which looks stripey—I’ll cut them back and destroy that foliage, too,” he says.

Any kind of diseased or infested vegetables get similarly fast attention. Brassicas, cucurbits, and tomatoes are among crops that often seem to invite problems. Clean the plants up thoroughly, removing roots and all, and destroy (don’t compost) the remains if the plants were troubled, unless your compost is cooking along “hot” enough. What’s hot enough? Above 140 degree F is the temperature usually cited to do the job of killing many weed seed and pathogens.

My heap isn’t “hot,” so I put suspicious material, including my worst weeds, into recycled plastic bags (such as ones that may have contained lime or potting soil), tie them shut, and put them in the sun to cook things to death for weeks before incorporating into the heap. Where burning is legal, some people burn infested debris.

Stabilize woody plants: Walk around and have a good look at trees and shrubs, to identify any vulnerable limbs. Cut off broken or dead branches now to make sure winter weather doesn’t toss them about and make things worse.

My compost heap in late fallGather those leaves: Save all the leaves you can, especially ones such as oaks that resist matting down the way maples do. In fact, start a leaves-only compost pile this fall. Composted, shredded leaves, “are the best mulch—and beautiful,” says Ken, and working it into vegetable beds as part of soil prep adds organic matter, too. A trick to composting even slick, stuck-together maple leaves and other wet debris: Ken adds “loft” to the leaf pile with a layer of fine, twiggy brush every so often.

I pre-shred by running over leaf piles with my mower (then raking the crumbles into the heap), or with the help of my neighbor’s mechanized leaf “rake,” which sucks up the foliage and shreds it on its way into a hopper that’s pulled behind his tractor.

Late-season lawncare: Do your heavy raking of lawn areas now—not in spring—and overseed if there’s still time in your area. Ken recommends topdressing with a half- or three-quarter-inch layer of compost onto areas that were thin or trampled.

Jack in some big pots, under cover on the back porchProtect weather-vulnerable pots: Expanding soil inside freezing pots can crack even the best terra cotta.  Moving pots under cover, where they will at least dry off (to minimize heave/thaw effects of weather) is critical. Ken has tested the limits of some big, “weatherproof” clay pots by lining them at planting time with his secret weapons: bubble wrap, or the foam sheeting used in packing materials.

“If I have a well-made, high-fired, conical-shaped pot,” he says, “I’ve had some pretty good luck with lining them with two layers of the thinnest bubble wrap or two layers of that foam fabric, to make room for expansion during freezing.  I have left some pots outdoors that would not have made it, I think, if not for the expansion space I have made by lining them.”“ A warning, though: Test this tactic next year with one pot of a particular material, not all your best ones at once!

Most of all: Weed! Besides cleaning up around diseased plants, this is the most important fall task of all. “Even if I can’t weed, exactly, I’m deadheading my weeds,” says Ken, “since most of mine are annuals.”  His biggest problem: Japanese stilt grass. “I’ve been deadheading it starting in August,” he says, “and I’ll even go around now with scissors and cut off the seedheads.” He’s not pulling it, because uprooting may open up spots for more weed seeds to possibly sprout.  Since it’s an annual, the parent plants won’t come back next year.

more about ken, and his ‘real dirt’ podcast

Ken Druse on a photo shoot

KEN DRUSE is the creator of the popular “Real Dirt” podcast, which Robin Hood Radio local listeners (the nearest NPR station to my home, and where I tape my own show each week) can hear live on Sunday  at 4 PM Eastern. He is also author of 18 garden books including “Making More Plants” (on propagation) and “Natural Companions” (on gorgeous plant combinations) and “The Natural Shade Garden” and more, all lush with his own photographs.

Even after more than 20 years of friendship and collaboration, I always learn from Ken. In this week’s radio show alone, I learned two new words: spall (in concrete, stone, ore–or pots!–to splinter, chip or break off in pieces), and riddle (to pass through a coarse sieve, as with compost).

Get Ken Druse’s “Real Dirt” podcast:

  1. bob scherer says:

    I start out with good intentions and finish with – “i guess I’ll wait till spring.”
    Re pots cracking from expanding ice: In my large concrete pots I never plant directly. I use heavy gauge black plastic pots (the kind you get shrubs & small trees in) as an interior pot. It makes removal of plants & soil easier. It also protects the exterior pot from expanding ice. These are good quality concrete pots that don’t spall. I do however, put away terra cotta pots since they do absorb moisture that can cause them to “peel” even if they don’t crack from ice. Often I just leave the plants in the pots until spring when I am forced to cleanup what I should have done in fall.

  2. Sharon says:

    I need to start the “leaf only” pile this year. My neighbor’s trees dump oak and maple leaves on my yard, I may as well use the free mulch, right?

  3. Sandie Anne says:

    Great article! I am leaving my sunflowers standing even though they look awful because the chickadees keep visiting them to eat the seeds. And the purple coneflowers because the goldfinches are eating them. They look awful too!

  4. Carole Clarin says:

    Enjoyed listening to your discussion with Ken on Monday and my copy of The Natural Shade Garden, has been a delight to read as well as look at. The trees I have are pine, maple and cherry, here well before me. What I am never quite sure of is whether or not to remove the leaves near my perennials-I do leave them in the shaded areas where I don’t have much planted. Suggestions?

  5. Carole Clarin says:

    I just found the answer to my question above-too bad I only have a push mower for my very small lawn. Time to look for a shredder to deal with all those leaves!

  6. myna lee johnstone says:

    i have neither a lawn mower or a shredder but some municipalities do have a shredder depot to take leaves,small branches for shredding

  7. Susan Cruz says:

    The seed of microstegium is viable for at least 6-7 years so well worth the
    deadheading , though it may be that many years to be completely rid of a particular infestation . Too bad because I really do think it is a lovely texture in green . And I do encourage the similar looking native annual muhlenbergia . I also like the native annual , little barley . Our native ,mostly winter annual , grasses are under appreciated and if encouraged can fill timely niches .

  8. Michelle says:

    I shred leaves with a leaf shredder into a large can lined with a garbage bag and also use a leaf vac which has a hose with a nifty cover that fits over a garbage can to collect all the shredded leaves. (This works especially well when removing leaves from ground cover as it does not cause plant tearing like a rake.) When the ground freezes, I empty the bags of shredded leaves in garden beds. Insulates and breaks down over the winter into great leaf mold to work into the soil in spring.

  9. Debra Nice says:

    When we had that big wind storm I had to move several of my plants off the deck so they wouldn’t get broken.So I felt I might as well get the rest of my plants in their pots off the deck too. For many years I would move them into the garage downstairs but found I would forget to give them a splash of water duing the winter months.You know out of sight, out of mind! It was also too hard on my back to carry all those heavy pots down to the garage. Now I move all of my plants in their pots to a protected corner on our deck up against our house which provides good protection from wind and cold. And because the plants are all right up against each other they provide protection for each other. It is much easier on my back as all I have to do is walk out on the deck to give them some water. When it gets really cold out I cover them with a medium weight plastic sheet, One that lets light shine through so they can still feel alive under it. I don’t cut them back before I move them. I have found they get a good head start in the spring this way. I just do a little trimming, picking, and cleanup when its time to bring them out when danger of frost is gone, iinto the sunshine to feed them,add new dirt if needed, water them, enjoy them and the miracle of the growing process starts all over again. I have had some of my Geraniums for 4 years now. Its just Wonderful!

  10. anne allbeury hock says:

    Hello all. What do we do w ith pine needles…piles and piles of them raked up and piled against a fence…and the trees are not rid of the brown needles yet.? Then the maples will drop their leaves which I will collect. I like the idea of bagging them and then using them later as mulch. The wind seems to deposit some leaves in the beds also. which I just leave there until spinrg. All the above ideas are terrific.

  11. Diana Hammerdorfer says:

    In our zone 4ish CO garden, I empty the pots that I can and flip the heavy ones upside down and that seems to prevent the pots cracking. I use all our leaves to top dress beds and compost the rest. I have friends who look for free leaves on Craigslist, they’re a valuable commodity here.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Diana, for your pot-storing tip. Never heard of posting leaves on Craigslist! So different from the Northeast, where we are covered in them. :)

      Hi, Anne. I leave the long needles from the white pines as mulch under those trees, and under various shrubs such as rhodies and conifers, but I bet you have a lot more than I do.

  12. Fran hamburg says:

    And I always learn something from you Margaret!
    That’s the wonderful thing about gardeners, their helpfulness and generosity!
    I did so much wirk in my garden this summer that I paid the price with a pulled back.
    Just getting back into the garden again with hopefully a more mindful approach to caring for my body as much as my gardens!


  13. Lacey says:

    Slugs! If I leave the leaves or even spread shredded leaves on my beds then my plants get eaten up with slugs. I have to sweep my woodland garden perfectly clean of debris in the fall. This year, I’m digging massive holes (lots of hard packed clay – using a pick-axe), filling the holes with leaves, and piling all the clay dirt back on top of the leaves. S;ugs won’t live and breed under mounds of dirt, will they?

  14. Lacey says:

    Slugs! If I leave the leaves or even spread shredded leaves on my beds then my plants get eaten up with slugs. I have to sweep my woodland garden perfectly clean of debris in the fall. This year, I’m digging massive holes (lots of hard packed clay – using a pick-axe), filling the holes with leaves, and piling all the clay dirt back on top of the leaves. Slugs won’t live and breed under mounds of dirt, will they?

  15. Dahlink says:

    Great priorities and tips here!

    I know other people have mentioned this before, Margaret, but sometimes I would love to know where a particular comment is coming from as I wonder if it would apply to my area (which is Baltimore, zone 7). I wonder if you could add something to the website to allow people to easily add that information, if they wished to share it?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Dahlink. Thanks for the suggestion. Can ask the web developer if we can write code for that, but it’s not a function that is part of the basic operation of comments, so I would have to build it custom.

  16. Bob says:

    I’ve been composting for years and have found one thing I did that I still rue after 3 years. Every 2 years the Honey Locust tree in my yard produces its many million pods. I have found that no matter how much shredding, mulching, cooking or praying I do, those seeds germinate by the many hundreds wherever you spread the compost that they are part of. This organic pea pod has no place in a compost pile.

  17. Marilyn says:

    Oh, Japanese stiltgrass (microstegium), I hate that stuff! Hurricane Fran blew it into my Raleigh NC yard in 1996, and I’v e been fighting it ever since. Has anyone ever found a pre-emergent available to homeowners that works? Or maybe I’m not timing that correctly. The stuff seems to germinate 9 months a year (7b). I can fight it ok in the “natural areas” and gardens, but I just don’t have enough time to pull all of it in the lawn, and then it wants to move back into the rest of the yard from there. Frequent mowing would be considered deadheading, I suppose, but it just sets its seeds low, and takes over more territory every year. And yes, as someone else mentioned, it is pretty, but not when it takes over everything.

  18. Kevin says:

    I completely enjoyed the information from Ken — as well as your conversation with him on your podcast. I’m still having a hard time parting with summer. The terra cotta pots have been cleaned and stored away, but the zinnias — in their late season powdery mildew glory — are still flowering. (And I kind of like the combination of the red flowers and silvery leaves.)

  19. Kay says:

    I have an issue with Japanese stiltgrass too. I have been placing cardboard or rubber roofing pieces over it and this works to smother it and prevents most of the seed germination in following years. I cover the cardboard or whatever with leaves to make it look like a natural covering of leaves on the ground. This as helped a great deal. Much faster then weeding it out !! I live in a forested area, this may not be an option for someone who does not have access to lots of leaves.
    Leaves on my garden beds results in hostas be eaten by slugs!! Pa. Zone 6

  20. Lacey says:

    I’m in Raleigh, too, and fought stiltgrass – and won! A local plantman told me that it flowers and sets seed right at the ground . To get rid of it you’ve got to pull it early and often. A few local nurseries sell corn gluten that is a preemergent if you get it down early enough, otherwise acts more like ferilizer. The birds will peck at it, but I’m pretty sure it’s harmless.

  21. Christina says:

    Thanks for great ongoing column and photos Margaret…nice to see you in Great Barrington at the BCC Orchid show. I depend on your columns to help me get through the long winters here in NW Connecticut.!

  22. Important points and well said. I agree that one of the most important chores in the fall garden is to get rid of any diseased leaves such as those with mildew. I usually wait until longer but with the recent wet spring and cooler summer the leaves on my peony are completely covered with mildew…even with treatment. Time to go outside and prune them back!

  23. Clara W. says:

    Great post! We just moved to a new house with a large backyard. Our neighbor’s trees dump leaves on our yard and we should clean the garden and get it ready for the spring. Here I found great answers what to do and what not. Thank you for the article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.