‘cleanup-plus:’ a conscious fall approach, with ken druse

YES, IT’S TIME or almost time to do some raking, and to dig the dahlias to stash: time to perform the rounds of the fall cleanup, and put the garden to bed. But Ken Druse and I want to advocate for a sort of “cleanup-plus”—for tending not just to the obvious chores, but also doing some reflection, and making time for often-overlooked late-season tasks like seed-saving.

Or for finally transplanting one of those two overcrowded shrubs that have been screaming for more elbow room, and you keep swearing to rescue them, but never quite get to it.

Sound familiar?

You all know Ken Druse, author of 20 spectacular garden books, an old friend and my colleague the last few years in our Virtual Garden Club online courses, which resume in January. (That’s the view of his fall garden, above.) We’ve been talking this week together on the phone about how we’re winding down our respective garden seasons, and we wanted to let you in on some of the details that we hope will help you in your own cleanup-plus.

Read along as you listen to the Nov. 6, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

fall ‘cleanup-plus,’ with ken druse



Margaret Roach: Are you ready for some “plus,” Ken? [Laughter.] How’s it going?

Ken Druse: Doesn’t it seem familiar? Like every year, and also every spring and every fall? It’s fall, but it doesn’t feel like… Well, the weather’s been very warm. But when we started thinking about talking about these things, it reminded me that that’s what we do in the spring too, is look.

Margaret: Yeah. And really most of all, to advocate for sort of not being on autopilot, not just robotically doing the literal things that need to be done. Like you were saying the other day, oh, the hoses have to be taken in, the water has to be turned off before big freezes and stuff. Yeah, of course, that’s right; that’s on our list, but it’s sort of consciously looking around, carefully looking around for other things. So first, before we do that, maybe we should sort of take stock a little bit out loud, kind of the highs and lows [laughter] of the season that’s winding down. Got any highs or lows?

Ken: Yeah. Well, I’ve got quite a few highs and not that many lows. When we talk about things like this, I always start with flood [laughter] because there’s been so many floods here that we built up the wall; we talked about that last year. So this is the second year of the full year of the built-up wall. And there was one big storm and some water came through the wall because it’s not a perfect wall, but it’s just made puddles and no debris, no pieces of wood. And I probably told you this, we always get old shoes [laughter], beer cans and shoes.

Margaret: Right. So for people who don’t know, you’re kind of on an island, in a river or stream. And so, one area would overwhelm, overflow its banks, and would bring all this. Not just water, but the stuff, including shoes into your garden and make a big mess. Well, that’s good that the wall repair from last year made an improvement for you. That’s great. That’s great. So what else, plus or minus?

Ken: Plus or minus, trees didn’t get eaten. I haven’t had, I shouldn’t say this while I knock on wood. We don’t have lanternflies and we don’t have gypsy moths. These are cons. I mean, pros, I mean cons that are pros.

Margaret: Right. So you feel fortunate for those factors this season?

Ken: Absolutely. And there’s some things I know I have to do to avoid some of these problems. And there’s all sorts of things like cleaning up. We can talk about some of the things that one should do to prepare for the good things that are still going to come.

Margaret: Yeah. Well, first I need to complain, though. Is the Complaint Department open? [Laughter.]

Ken: Of course. “Hello? Complaint Department, may I help you?”

Margaret: Perfect. O.K., great. You have about 10 hours? Well, so it was very… In the Northeast and in many areas, obviously the weather was aberrant as it is these days in general. But we had very, very wet, unusually wet weather, and rain came in multiple inches at a time many weeks. And so that promoted a lot of fungal things and issues.

And so I lost for the first time in 35 or 40 years, I lost all my garlic, for example, to a white mold, which I didn’t send it out to a pathology lab, and I don’t know which one it was. But whether it was infected seed garlic that came to me that way, or who knows what. So obviously I have to move the garlic to a place far away from where I had been growing it, if I’m going to try it again and get new stock, my new bulbs, which I did. But-

Ken: Did this show up on the leaves? Is that how you knew it was happening?

Margaret: No, at harvest time, the actual bulbs.

Ken: The bulbs?

Margaret: Yeah. So I mean, they started to look bad mid- to late season. But anyway, so there’s the whole “what’s going on with the weather?” and does that correlate to diseases we’re seeing in plants? I mean, a lot of people had their lilacs defoliate by August or something and then bloom.

Ken: Yes. And then ours bloomed.

Margaret: And then bloom in October. I mean nutsy stuff. So there was a lot of that. I was besieged by spongy moths. You were saying you were lucky not to have them. I had the spongy moths this year, my first big experience with them. But one of the things I’m doing is I am trying to focus, to follow your advice. What do you always tell me if I’m overwhelmed, what to do?

Ken: Do one thing. That really happens in the spring especially, how you walk out the door and you see the whole garden and there’s a thousand things that have to be done and you want to just run back inside. But don’t do that. Just pick—even if you repot one plant—just pick one thing and then one thing leads to another. It’s just a way to help with the spring and fall overwhelm.

Margaret: Yeah, so for me, I decided that in the face of these torrential, persistent rain events and the spongy moth damage—and we had a late freeze in late May that damaged a lot of things and on and on and on. I have the invasive jumping worms and all kinds of stuff. I was feeling kind of beat up. But I just decided with the helper that comes once a week for part of a day, I said, “You know what? We’re not going to ‘fix everything’ right now, right?” Because it’s been a tough season; stuff’s looking beat up. “But you know what let’s do? Let’s focus on something that would feel really good to accomplish.”

And we identified one sort of invasive thing that was making itself present in the upper meadow in a lot of these sort of outer areas, which is brambles, Rubus, some kind of blackberry or raspberry wild thing. And we decided that that was what we would tackle. And it feels so good. It’s not gussying up the garden, it’s not fine-tuning, it’s not horticulture exactly, right?

But it feels really good, the idea that I’m going to start next spring without that, with those areas that were like: ooh, you had to cover your eyes. You didn’t want to look over there because you knew the Rubus was taking over. So just one thing, and over and over and over. So that’s been kind of what I’ve been trying to do to offset my disappointment in some of the losses in this very strange year.

Ken: I think about maybe seven or eight years ago when I was going to give up gardening because of Japanese stiltgrass in August, I went, that’s what I chose. I’m going to just pull because it comes right out and mow, if it’s in the lawn. I’m going to pull the Japanese stiltgrass and it knocked it back I’d say 80 percent. [Tackling Japanese stiltgrass.]

Margaret: Right. So sometimes just that focusing feels really good. Now I’m interested because this was a very wet, and as I said, like fungusy-

Ken: Except for one month of no rain in May.

Margaret: In the beginning, right.

Ken: Has that ever happened before?

Margaret: Yeah, I think it has. But you had good tomatoes; usually those will just go down the tubes. Didn’t you have good tomatoes?

Ken: You were saying pro and I couldn’t think of a thing.

Margaret: Well, I remember you telling me on the phone the other day that you had good tomatoes.

Juliet small paste tomatoesKen: I know. Never have been able to grow tomatoes well, or even hardly at all. And I did grow some on the driveway, on the sunniest spot in pots, but I’d get two or three fruits. Well, this year I paid attention to you, too, and I got a couple of varieties that you said were so great, especially ‘Juliet’ [above]. And I got two of those corrugated metal raised beds and put one in the sunniest place, which is practically on the mailbox, right next to the mailbox.

I probably have all this awful stuff from cars going by because it’s right on the road. But I filled it and I planted ‘Juliet.’ And I started them too early, which turned out to be O.K., and gave a lot away because I had too many plants, but I planted them. And just this week I still got a few tomatoes. So I’ve been, I don’t know, hundreds of ‘Juliet’ tomatoes. And you’re right, they’re delicious.

Margaret: It’s a great one. Yeah, Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog sells it.

I also managed to do something that neither one of us ever does, which is to give up on certain plants, especially houseplants this fall. Instead of bringing them all in, including a few that were kind of way past prime, I tossed a few, I finally composted a couple of them. I know. And I thought, oh, I could just take that tiny little piece and I could put it in another pot. But you know what? I could start over, too. And I got some new houseplants, a couple of new houseplants, and it just feels good sometimes to lighten the load. You can really spend a lot of time being bogged down by some of the hard things.

Ken: You probably forget, too. You know, you think you’re going to miss this thing and then you get distracted by something else.

Margaret: Yeah. I have some thoughts about seeds and I bet you do, too, because you’re always like Mr. Propagation over there. Any sort of seeds stuff at this time of year for you?

Ken: Well, I always look because as you said, I want more, for some reason. I think I just like the process. So I’ll go get the nicotiana [above] and some other things that are normally making seed that are easy to get this time of year. Some things that self-sow, like hellebores, I might plan to move them. Japanese painted fern from spores self “spored” [laughter] and I’ll move some of those.

Margaret: Self-spored [laughter].

Ken: Yeah, I have to make notes about that. But something that I really haven’t looked at very much, you know how those awful lilies make a little tiny beads along the stems? They’re bulbils, and I don’t want those because that’s kind of a weedy plant, but I know-

Margaret: Which lilies are we talking about that are awful? I’m sorry.

Ken: It’s Lilium bulbiferum.

Margaret: Bulbiferum? Oh, I don’t think I have that, O.K. All right.

Ken: Good. And if you see something that has a name like bulbiferus or bulbiferum, it’s because it makes some other kind of vegetative reproductive organism along the stems and they’re called bulbils. And I noticed this year, well, you’ve seen it on the Allium. You know how sometimes the Allium, it looks like a flower, but at the top it’s got all these little onions in a cluster?

Margaret: Right, so these bulbils, right? O.K.

Ken: Right. And those will… They’re genetically clones. They’re identical to the parent plant. So you could actually get those and grow them on. But the thing that really turned me on, I have a couple of hardy begonias, and I think that Issima has been playing around with them because we have one that has white flower. I love the ones with white flower. White flowers, silver splashes on the leaves. And there’s a pink one with silver splashes on the leaves, too. But I noticed in the axles where the leaf meets the stem, there’s these little, they’re really tiny, almost like seeds, but they’re actually little plants, or they could be.

Margaret: So you said Issima, and so you mean the sort of rare-plant nursery in Rhode Island, Issima?

Ken: Ed Bowen’s.

Margaret: Yeah. So you got these hardy begonias; it’s a perennial begonia even for you in zone, what are you 6?

Ken: 6A.

Margaret: Yeah, begonia, what’s the species? I don’t know which one it is. We’ll have to look it up. [Update: It’s Begonia grandis, above.] So you have this perennial showing a couple of varieties, and it’s making these little bulbils also, huh?

Ken: Yeah. So now I will grow them on, probably they would fall when the plant falls to the ground. They probably, some will root in, but I’m going to help them along.

Margaret: Now I have noticed I have some voodoo lilies. I have both Sauromatum and Amorphophallus. And a couple of the Amorphophallus, and those are the ones that sometimes the botanical gardens have the really, really big one, the Titan Arum, as they call it, where it’s going to flower and it’s going to be really stinky like dead rotten meat scent or something, they’ll have a special event because it’s so dramatic-looking and smelly. But anyway, these are smaller than that. But I have one that’s Amorphophallus bulbifer, the species bulbifer.

Ken: Bulbifer?

Margaret: Right. So like what you just said, and don’t you know I’ve had a number of years, and so now some of my plants, they go dormant in the winter and I store them in the cellar, the bulbs, have bulbils on top of the leaves. So there’s bulbils in various little sort of joints in these very complex-looking leaves. And it’s hilarious. It looks like some little round pebbles got glued onto the leaves or something [laughter]. It’s really funny. So that you’re making me think that I should go grab those.

Ken: And go into business, finally make some money, right?

Margaret: Yeah, that’s a good idea. So are you also, you were saying other certain seed. So you’re collecting some of your favorite nicotianas? Is that what you do, the ones that you liked what they looked like, or…?

Ken: Right. Let’s say I want fragrance, of course. And so I’ll make note in my head of the ones that are extra-fragrant in the evening or earlier, because some of them are fragrant around four o’clock. So I’ll say, “Oh, I’d like that.” And the better colors, maybe a dark purple one. Well, not maybe; I’ve done that, a dark purple one. And the seed pods on nicotiana, while the plant’s flowering, those little pods are ripening. So it’s so easy. So now I have like 10,000 of those.

Margaret: Yeah, I’ve had nicotiana in a few areas, sort of self-sown populations for the later part of the season for many, many, many years. And so the species that I started with, very distinctive-looking particular ones like mutabilis, Nicotiana mutabilis, which is very tall and so forth. I don’t know what happens, if they just kind of don’t come true. Well, I know they don’t come true; there is variation within each population.

But after this many years, probably 20 years, I was feeling like I didn’t have as much oomph as I wanted, in terms of like you’re saying, some of the darker-flowered ones or some of the particularly statuesque ones. So I actually just ordered some seed, and I also did this with Verbena bonariensis, the tall verbena that the butterflies love so much and so forth, because I had a great population of it in one area, a self-sown population, which was very dramatic, but it’s kind of, as self-sowns do, it decided where it wanted to sow, over there and over there and over there, but not in the concentrated way that I like [laughter]. So to get sort of the other colors of the nicotiana back in my populations, and to heavy up on the Verbena bonariensis, I actually ordered some packets of seeds.

And every fall I forget to do this because these are like these self-sown things. Every fall I forget to do this. And so I either don’t spread it around now, or I don’t have it early enough to do that in very late winter, which I think is an ideal time for sowing it as well. I’ll just forget, I get caught up with ordering tomatoes and stuff like that.

Ken: But now you’ll remember, because it’s done.

Margaret: Well, I have it. There it is. I’ve got it right in front of me. And so I’m going to kind of, like I said, heavy up and redirect those clusters of verbena and nicotiana where I want them a little more.

Ken: Yeah, I was going to say some of these things that you know self-sow, it might be an idea to clear a little space and make it kind of prepared. Especially since you’re thinking about you want them and you’re going to move some, that just make it 1 foot by 1 foot or 2 foot by 2 foot cleared space with ground ready to accept the seeds that fall.

Margaret: Right, like a landing pad, so to speak. Yeah, because otherwise, if there’s thick leaf litter or whatever from the fall and winter—I mean, you’re right, there’s not that open ground that is welcoming to a good self-sowing, or for me sowing either. Yeah. So I think that’s true: to make some room under some of our favorite biennials and self-sowing annuals and so forth.

Have you had any pests that you’re going to… The pest thing is enough to drive a person crazy sometimes.

from Missouri Botanical GardenKen: Well, this year it’s voles again.

Margaret: Oh, the year of the vole.

Ken: And first I started seeing the trails across the paths, where you can see the trail. And well, we’ve been trapping some. We hate talking about it.

Margaret: Right, so you see the surface tunnels, yeah. And those are trapped, like mice are trapped. Yeah, no, and sometimes you don’t know you have voles, you don’t see the surface tunnels cut into the lawn or whatever, but you go and you try to harvest your sweet potatoes and they’ve all been chewed up underground. You know what I mean?

Ken: Or you’re wondering what happened to the Siberian iris. Because they’re just gone.

Margaret: At half-mast, right, right, right. Going underground.

Ken: And the voles love it because the foliage falls over and it’s a place for them to hide and then they eat the rhizomes. But years ago—and maybe I should do this again—when I first had voles, this will sound so weird, I spread used cat litter, the clay kind, over the Siberian iris because that was the thing they loved. And it repelled them.

Margaret: I bet it did. It would repel me, too [laughter].

Ken: Well, the clay, it doesn’t matter. It goes away.

Margaret: But so pest stuff, I mean, fall is an important time, and a lot of times we forget to do this because again, we don’t have a crop in the ground that we’re hoping to get a harvest from, because that’s done already. So we kind of forget to do the pest control.

And it’s a really critical time when we’re pulling apart our vegetable gardens. I mean with, again, tomatoes, which are so prone to various diseases, especially fungal ones. And with brassicas with the cabbage and cauliflower and broccoli and kale and so forth, relatives and the squashes, the cucurbits that get squash bugs and so forth. A lot of those pests of those groups of plants or those diseases of the tomatoes, the fungal things, they like nothing better than to overwinter where you’ve left behind the root system and the faded foliage of their favorite yummy crop, right [laughter]? So good hygiene, good fall hygiene in the vegetable garden.

Ken: And you’re making me think of one of our latest pests, the jumping worms. I think the adults don’t make it through the winter in our cold gardens.

Margaret: Correct. They’re annuals, correct.

Ken: But the-

Margaret: …Cocoons do.

Ken: Yeah. Little cocoons.

Margaret: Full of eggs.

Ken: Are you trying something? Full of eggs. Are you trying something for that?

Margaret: It’s a pretty losing battle so far. I mean, the scientists don’t know what to tell us to do really to counteract it. But what I’m doing, just in self-defense a little bit, where the worms are the worst in certain areas where they started out in my garden, I am each fall topping up, I’m adding bagged topsoil or bulk topsoil. Just in certain areas where certain plants look like the soil’s been degraded too much, and the plants aren’t going to be happy, I’m just kind of topdressing and so forth with soil.

Now that’s essentially feeding the worms, because the next year’s generation is going to process that soil. But it’s either that, or the plants are going to fall out of the ground in certain spots. So that’s what I’m doing.

I am going to, there’s a couple of products that, there’s a tea seed meal natural fertilizer that is back on the market again. And then there’s another product that may help to bring the worms to the surface during their active season, so that you can get rid of them—you can destroy them, drown them, whatever—or that may actually kill them. [More on those products and tactics.]

Again, it’s not going to solve the whole problem, but it may help you reduce the population so that the number of cocoons that are left behind at the end of the year are not as many. But if you have a couple acres, forget it; it’s not going to be the answer. But I may do a couple of small experiments next spring and summer during active season.

But before we run out of time, I just want to ask you: Are you going to find time to move any woody plants or anything? Because I know I have a couple of things crammed in I need to deal with.

Ken: I’ve been doing it, because you know it’s shady here. And that’s one way you can tell you’re in trouble with a woody plant is it doesn’t look good and things are happening. So we moved a Cornus kousa ‘Elizabeth Lustgarten’ weeping kousa dogwood. I thought that will never make it. It made it. Moved it to more sun. One of those twig dogwoods, we moved that to more sun, and we’re going to move some Salix that have colorful stems in the winter there, too.

Margaret: Oh, some willows, huh? Twig willows.

Ken: Yeah. In the shade they don’t look like anything, and they don’t push that new growth. So I’ve already moved some of those, but when you move… We don’t have sun, but we’re shoehorning them in and some things that, well, there’s some things like hellebores that can go to the shade, and some ferns too, so.

Margaret: But with woody plants, deciduous woody things, even into the late fall is still time to do that. And next spring it’s going to be too busy, right, so…

Ken: Right. So that’s happening.

Margaret: All right. Well keep making the list. I’ll call you later [laughter]. We’ll talk about, we’ll commiserate more, but yeah, so cleanup plus with some conscious effort, some looking around more closely. So thanks for making time. I’ll talk to you soon, O.K.?

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 6, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Robert Roggeveen says:

    Your conversations are a delight. Thank you. It is a privilege to be able to “ sit” with the two of you and catch your enthusiasm. May I put in a plug for the Virtual Garden Club?

  2. Sharon says:

    Good to know stilt grass is an annual, think I pulled it all. And that jumping worms die at the end of the season. Will be checking out what their cocoons look like.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Missy. In the North we don’t see V. bonariensis naturalize in an aggressive way; as you can see from the map in that link you sent, it’s troublesome in some of the warmest zones (FL, parts of CA) where it perennializes.

  3. Linda Bridges says:

    I truly love your interviews with Ken! Thank you❤️
    Milkweed… I ran Lawn and Garden in an organically run hardware and lumber store in Portland Maine for three years… the owner, Scott Eldridge, was firmly committed to native plants and organic practices. We carried milkweed seedlings and seeds. I am semi retired but still live that lifestyle. Milkweed adorns the perimeter and edges of my property. And for readers who haven’t done it, those battered and fries pods are delicious! And yes, I’d love a copy of the book!

  4. Margaret Manzke says:

    I always look forward to your conversations with Ken Druse. It’s like visiting with old friends, and learning new things. Thank you!

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