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 recent podcast plus overtime. (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.