AN 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.
Gather 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.
Protect 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 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: