EVEN I—SHE OF THE MONTHLY CHORES LISTS—get overwhelmed at the thought of it: fall cleanup. As the month begins, I wait in a sort of suspended animation—for frost, and for leaf drop, the two accelerators that manufacture literal heaps of to-do’s faster than I can keep up. Top on our chores list this month: an 8-point program to help us all focus, along with some critical note-taking on the year’s garden, as we’re teasing it apart.
garden elsewhere? regional links
THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To adjust timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). But read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.
fall cleanup: the short version
- Identify some areas that can be left “messy,” particularly fallen leaves left in place under native trees and even a brush pile–to act as essential habitat for overwintering beneficials, from moths and butterflies to spiders and more. Leaf litter is prime habitat for many important creatures that can help us with pollination and pest control as adults next year. I don’t rake the looser outer beds at my place, or mow down my meadow till sometime next May, for example. How and why to back off too-tidy cleanup, from Doug Tallamy, author of “Nature’s Best Hope.”
- Leave especially ornamental or wildlife-friendly plants standing. Don’t act as if you’re vacuuming the living room; clean up beds tactically for maximum enjoyment by you and the birds. (If you also put up bird feeders in fall and winter, here are my basic tips for that.)
- Remove sickly things first. Destroy the debris to minimize next year’s issues with squash bugs, cabbage worms, and other pests and diseases. Like this.
- Stabilize woody plants: Identify any vulnerable limbs, removing broken or dead branches now to make sure winter weather doesn’t worsen things. Pruning 101.
- With the leaves you do need to rake up, start a leaves-only compost pile. You can run them over with the mower or vacuum to save space if a light accumulation. Once crumbly after aging in a heap, they make great mulch, or can be turned into beds to add organic matter. Again, though: leave as many leaves in place as you can.
- Late-season lawncare: Do your heavy raking now—not in spring—and overseed if there’s still time where you live. Here’s why that’s smart (hint: it helps prevent weeds later). Topdress with a half- or three-quarter-inch layer of compost onto thin or trampled areas.
- Protect or store weather-vulnerable pots and the tender plants in them: At a minimum, move pots under cover, where they will dry off (to minimize heave/thaw effects of weather). More tricks on weather-proofing and overwintering pots are in this story, with Ken Druse. How to stash non-hardy plants is at this link (with some extra details below, in the “overwintering tender plants” section).
- Weed! Besides cleaning up around diseased plants, this is a giant “must.” Even if you can’t weed, exactly, deadhead your weeds now and discard the seeds. Fewer seeds now, fewer weeds next year.
about those weeds…
NOW IS THE TIME to limit next year’s weeds. I love the expression: “One year seed, seven years weed.” Don’t let them set seed! Some species are actually easier to thwart in late summer and fall, like these (including knotweed, ragweed, Ailanthus, bindweed, curly dock and more).
Specific weed wisdom:
- Clearweed, or Pilea pumila
- A weed I planted (oops!), Houttuynia or chameleon plant
- Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata
- Commelina and Galinsoga
- Mugwort and prunella
- Hedge bindweed and spotted spurge
- Poison ivy 101
- How to ID your weeds—links to online guides
- Smothering weeds with cardboard and newspaper
- Piling on the mulch for weed suppression and control
how’d you do? evaluate the garden
IN EARLY FALL, I try to do an informal survey of the garden—noting what worked and didn’t, and making a plan for possible changes. While I tease the garden apart this month, I’m making my next-year garden resolutions.
- Plan in detail to extend and enrich your garden’s season. Reviewing some of my recent tip-filled interviews with landscape designers like these may help. Or maybe you want to concentrate on adding natives that particularly appeal to pollinators? That story. Or creating a garden that the birds love.
- Or think about a less-work-intensive garden inspired by the way plant communities in nature grow together, where plants are the mulch, says Claudia West.
- Or getting more creative with your use of bulbs.
- Or adding to the fall-foliage show with more Japanese maples.
- Or reducing maintenance and shifting more toward “management” by designing new plantings with the inspiration of plant communities in mind, like this.
- Or simply focusing on developing or fine-tuning your signature garden style, to help things hang together (with help from Susan Morrison). Whatever your goal, begin planning now.
overwintering tender plants
BEAT THE FROST: Ken Druse and I tackled the topic of the “mad stash” on a podcast. (Also in the archives: overwintering rosemary, and storing figs, what to do with potted citrus in cold zones, and a general page of plant-stashing tips.)
CANNAS, DAHLIAS AND OTHER tender bulb-like things including elephant ears need to be dug carefully in frost-prone zones for indoor storage. There are many methods, depending what plant you’re storing; I prep and then stash in a dry spot like my unheated basement at around 40-50 degrees.
trees & shrubs
FALL IS A GREAT TIME for planting woody things. But don’t dig an extra-large hole, or amend the backfill with lots of compost or peat moss. Here’s why that’s bad for transplants—plus how to prune their roots before planting.
CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents. Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round.
BE EXTRA-VIGILANT cleaning up under fruit trees, as fallen fruit and foliage allowed to overwinter invites troubles next season. So will mummies (shriveled fruit hanging on the trees). Best to pick and remove, though I confess to leaving mine hanging for the birds, who adore it.
SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE later this month, when leaves fall and egg cases are easier to see. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood, before April-ish, to reduce larvae and beetle issues next year. The bump-like cases are usually on the underside of youngest twigs. I also watch in May for larvae hatch of any I missed and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests.
BE SURE TO WATER trees now through hard frost if conditions are dry, so that they enter dormancy well-hydrated. Evergreens (needled ones and broadleaf types like rhododendron, too) are particularly vulnerable to desiccation and winterburn.
DON’T PANIC IF EVERGREENS show some browning or yellowing of needles this month and next. The oldest, innermost needles typically shed after a few years.
BESIDES REMOVING dead, damaged, diseased wood, ditto with suckers and water sprouts anytime. No hard pruning or shaping now, though; no fertilizer this late, either.
vegetables, fruit & herbs
THOUGHTFULLY take apart the vegetable garden as crops fade, with an eye to improved future performance.Think about tilling less, about cover crops, and about generally boosting soil health. David Mattern of Chanticleer’s vegetable garden tells how.
PRESERVING the edible garden here continues through the last apple and tomato I squeeze into my pantry or freezer in the form of something delicious and durable. Such as applesauce, or apple butter, easy vegetable and other soups, or skins-on easy tomato sauce to freeze.
COOKBOOK AUTHOR Alana Chernila taught me to roast herbed tomatoes like this, then freeze them. Delicious. I freeze lots of herbs, too, in various forms. Author Sarah Owens’s herb jam and quick pickles are sounding good around now, too, for those last harvests.
TOMATOES NOT RIPE? How to coax them to redness, maybe (or ways to use them green!).
I LEAVE MY POTATOES in the ground as long as I can, but any day now they really want a proper storage place (humidity is the key). All about storing dug potatoes. Plus: How to store all your vegetables so they last.
REPLANT THE BIGGEST CLOVES from your best heads of harvested garlic, or hurry and order a supply and plant this month (about a month before frost is in the ground). How to plant garlic: Prepare a sunny spot, and plant each clove 2 or so inches deep and 6 inches apart in the row, with about 12 inches between rows. I mulch my garlic bed. Green growth may appear this fall; that’s normal.
DID YOU SOW COVER CROPS? Green manures help build soil tilth and fertility. There are varieties for each season and region.
PREPARE A SEEDBED NOW for peas and spinach for next spring, to get a headstart on such early crops. Spinach can even be sown now, even in the North, and covered with a Reemay fabric “blanket” for super-early spring harvest.
IF NEXT YEAR’S GARDEN plans include a patch of strawberries or asparagus or cane fruits like raspberries, do the soil preparation now so the bare-root plants ordered over the winter can be planted extra early come spring.
PARSLEY AND CHIVES can be potted up and brought indoors for offseason use. A few garlic cloves in a pot will yield a supply of chive-like (but spicier) garlic greens all winter for garnish. Determined types with really sunny windowsills can theoretically sow seeds of bush basil in a pot, too, but I have no luck with that; I rely on frozen herb concoctions.
PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION to areas to cleanup around peonies, roses, bearded iris and other flowers that are prone to fungal diseases; don’t leave any debris in place.
DON’T HYDRANGEAS make you happy? (They still look good here, and have since high summer.) Maybe you want to add more? A primer on the best ones, and how to prune them (and when not to!).
DON’T COMPLETELY DEADHEAD FADED perennials, biennials and annuals if you want to collect seed (non-hybrids only) or wish to let them self-sow for next year’s show. Nicotiana, poppies, larkspur, clary sage, angelica and many others fall into this leave-alone group.
LAST CALL FOR BULB ORDERS, and plant as they arrive (lilies most urgently—I love the martagon types). How I think when I’m ordering flower bulbs (seven tips). And I especially think about drifts, not onesies and threesies.
PREPARE NEW beds for future planting by smothering grass or weeds with layers of recycled corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, then put mulch on top.
START A FIRST POT of paperwhites (or a cocktail shaker full, tee hee), and stagger forcing more every couple of weeks for a continuing winterlong indoor display.
REST AMARYLLIS BULBS by putting them in a dry, dark place where they will have no water at all for a couple of months. In September, I put mine in a little-used closet; do it now if you haven’t. An unusual way to grow these familiar bulbs.
IF HOUSEPLANTS NEED urgent repotting, do it before they come inside (less messy than in the house!). Ideally, I do this in spring just as they go out, but if someone’s in need, do now. Don’t step up more than an inch (on small pots) or a couple (on large ones). Most plants don’t like to swim in containers.
compost heap & mulch
TOP UP MULCH in garden beds as they get cleaned up gradually. I order bulk mulch, which eliminates the waste of all those heavyweight plastic bags. Many local nurseries deliver. What good mulch is made of. I’ll recut the messiest of my bed edges, too, if there is time, to reduce weed creep.
need help in other regions?
AGAIN: I’m in the Northeast, in Zone 5B, though the how-to in this story will work most anywhere (if timed slightly differently). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation.
Have you had positive results with freezing while raw beets? If not what else do you recommend to store beets
I am not planting any trees this fall, but I am having major problems with hairy bittercress this year (which has gotten much worse) and of course oxalis (an every year problem). Virginia creeper seedling have been a big headache for some reason this year as well, but they are easy to spot and pull fortunately. But I am talking many hundreds of seedlings this year.
Which perennials should be cut down (say, 6 inches, or less) for winter in 5B?
It’s up to you — remember in nature none of these plants cut themselves back. : ) I cut down what is a messy and/or has no seeds or fruit for wildlife — so things like hosta whose big leaves after frost are just lying on the ground and providing nesting spots for rodents, or things that are otherwise flopped over and doing no good either to look at or again, for birds to feast on. I leave up what looks good until it doesn’t look good any longer. I never leave any thick accumulation of fallen plants (or piles of fallen tree leaves on top of fallen plants) — again it invites pests and disease.
Margaret, I hope when everything outdoors is tucked in for the winter your “to-do” list includes a new book. I have all three and have reread them many times. Would love a new one!
I am pondering over here, PamK. I miss writing long-form and hope to gear up again soon.
For a different take on fall clean-up, check out Habitat Network’s Lazy Gardener Pledge. The title is a bit hokey, but the concepts are so important for wildlife.
Hi, Ruth. Funny that you should mention it, because they are coming on the show in a week or two!
This year in the Berkshires and New York a fungus on Maple trees is causing leaves to turn brown and fall — there is no brilliant color display. It’s a temporary condition, caused by a wet cool spring weather. Gardeners should bag their leaves — not mulch them — in order to avoid providing an ongoing growth opportunity for the fungus. More on this.
Thanks, Maryk. This early leaf drop is evident all through the area, I have noticed, but I have been feeling as if some maples are in decline beyond that, too. Have been reading up about any/all such issues.
Love your posts! Have a conundrum in my garden: for the first time this spring, and continuing to date, I have a problem with something (squirrels?!?) punching holes in my garden hoses. It doesn’t matter if they are coiled up on hose holders, on the second floor deck, laying out on the ground, or hooked up to water or not. They have destroyed about 30 hoses in the last four months. Any ideas who, why, or what to do about it?
Wow, Dottie, that’s a mystery! And that’s awful — so many hoses destroyed. Once I had squirrels that were obsessed with gnawing the wooden posts on my back porch — who knows why — and when no amount of non-toxic (but smelly) animal-proofing spray made a difference I did hire a state licensed nuisance wildlife trapper and relocated the offending group of squirrels. Still don’t know why they were so crazed about those posts that year!
These squirrels, supposing they are actually the culprits, have also chewed the tops of the wrought iron railings on my deck (every one!), and gnawed around the edges of the bird baths. We aren’t encouraged to trap them, as relocating usually means death to them, but they are certainly worthy opponents of a gardener!
When it was the house itself they were chewing on, I reached my limit of patience and did legally have some relocated, I confess. You are being very calm about it — more than I was!
I am currently dealing with the same problem, the squirrels have chewed many holes in my irrigation emitter system throughout my garden. My temporary solution has been to give them a source for water, ground level bird baths, it seems to have helped. I am waiting on repairing my plant watering system until I see if this is a viable solution!
Hi Margaret I live in Ireland but follow your advice which works very well here so just to say a big thank you.
“With the leaves you do need to rake up, start a leaves-only compost pile. You can run them over with the mower to save space, or use a vacuum that shreds (whether backpack or an attachment to a tractor). How to put leaves to work by shredding them…”
Wait, isn’t Doug T now advising not shredding/chopping/mowing leaves that may contain insect eggs/larvae/etc.?
Yes; I’ve reworded it, thanks to be clearer. Some people have leaves on their walkways or other places where they cannot stay so there will probably be some to convert to mulch (rather than bag and send away — which is definitely not to be done).
You are always an inspiration!
I wasn’t going to weed any more, but now…
Thanks for the tips! I have recently put in some fruit trees and probably made the holes a little too big. I did put in compost but now im second guessing myself if this was a smart choice. They do seem to be doing ok. What is the problem with putting too much compost or peat moss in the hole – is it that it becomes too acidic? Would lime help?
Current thinking is not to create “a $50 hole for a $5 plant” as they used to recommend, and you can read more about this here. That said, it will probably be fine. It’s not the pH (so no lime to adjust!) but more about whether the roots are encouraged to get into “native soil” sooner than later.
Count me in
I so love all of your articles-so chalk full of great information that I can always glean something from. (Especially encouragement to weed!) I have Bermuda grass that I constantly battle as it encroaches on my beds. I have found growing peppermint keeps it somewhat at bay; but that will take over in a minute or less too. No matter; I refuse to be dissuaded from the garden :-)