Until not so long ago, cleaning up every last leaf from your garden in fall was thought to be good garden sanitation. Now, we know that cleaning up like mad can damage the environment.
That doesn’t mean that you can leave the garden as it is. Here’s what a responsible gardener should do.
Is Garden Tidying Up Necessary In Fall?
An end-of-season clean up in the garden is not only necessary but beneficial. Removing wilted plant materials enables you to test and improve the soil, preparing it for the next growing season.
A cover crop seeded in fall can help improve the soil without the use of chemicals. Once the crops are gone, you can also work compost into the ground to enrich it if needed.
However, this doesn’t mean that you have to clean up every single leaf.
While clearing away vegetable crops and dead annuals is necessary, perennials can be left as they are. The leaves in your flower beds are also fine to skip cleaning, and you can even let foliage remain on the plants.
Major pruning isn’t a fall chore either.
While cutting off dead branches from trees and shrubs is fine in this season, major pruning in fall can actually damage the plants. Instead, postpone this task to late winter or early spring.
The checklist below can help you plan out the autumn clean up.
When Should A Garden Be Cleaned In Fall?
You can start garden clean up as early as you want after harvesting the last crops. However, the garden and yard are a lot easier to tidy up after the first few nights of frost.
The surface of the ground freezes out during these nights and thaws in the morning. This extra moisture softens the soil, making it easier to clear away dead plants (comprising their roots) without tilling.
November is the perfect month for garden clean up in most climate areas in the northern hemisphere.
Fall Garden Clean Up Checklist
1. Clear Away Vegetable Crops
Rotation is critical in a vegetable garden. You should avoid planting the same crops in a particular place year after year – in fact, you should only replant a crop in a particular spot after about three to four years.
This practice prevents specific plants from being affected by the same diseases or pests.
For instance, if your tomato plants were affected by a disease or parasite in a particular spot, new tomato plants are more likely to be affected by the same stuff if you plant them in the same spot again.
Because crop rotation is crucial, you must clear the entire plot after the last harvest – the only exception is perennial herbs or vegetables that remain in the same spot year after year.
As far as annuals go, pull out wilted plants and dispose of them in a bin bag.
Even though dead vegetable plants are theoretically compostable, you shouldn’t add them to the compost pile.
If they were affected by any parasites or microorganisms, these organisms can survive in the compost pile, contaminating it.
They will then pass back into the soil through fertilization and affect your crops all over again. For this reason, it is best to avoid composting dead vegetable plants.
GardenTroop Tip: Take some photos of the garden layout before clearing away the old crops. You can use them later when planning next year’s layout.
2. Do One Last Weeding
Vegetable crops aren’t the only thing you should clear away in fall.
If you spot any weeds in the growing or walking rows, pull them out and throw them away in the bin bag.
While weeding in fall may feel like unnecessary work, it can prevent an uncontrolled spreading of weeds that can give you headaches in the next growing season.
3. Remove Garden Supports
Garden supports, such as trellises, follow climbing crops like pole beans year after year.
Not only must you move them to the new planting spot, but these supports can also spread diseases – especially fungal infections.
Leaving them out in the open could also damage them. This is particularly true for wooden supports.
The best thing to do is to remove and winter them in a shed, after cleaning and disinfecting them thoroughly.
4. Test And Improve Your Soil
Maintaining soil quality is crucial if you want your plants to thrive. After a busy year of producing crops, the soil likely lacks nutrients. Its pH could also be off.
Do a pH test and adjust with lime (if acidic) or sulfur or iron sulfate (if alkaline) to neutralize it.
Lab testing can tell you which minerals the soil lacks.
However, mixing compost into the soil is an easy way of making sure that it’s fertile for next year’s crops without any testing – and it’s organic, too!
5. Plan Next Year’s Garden Layout
With the terrain now clean, you can plan the new layout for your vegetable garden. Use the pictures taken earlier to figure out where each new crop should go.
When planning crop rotation, remember that vegetables in the same family should not be planted in the same place for three to four years.
For instance, when moving tomatoes to a new spot, their original place shouldn’t be taken by other plants in the nightshade family (potatoes, eggplants, peppers).
There are six major vegetable families to consider:
- Alliums: Garlic, onions, chives, shallots, leeks
- Brassicas: Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, radishes, turnip greens, collards, mustard greens
- Cucurbits: Cucumbers, squash, zucchini, melons, pumpkin
- Legumes: Peas, beans, soybeans, peanuts
- Nightshades: Tomato, potato, eggplant, peppers
- Umbellifers: Parsnip, carrots, fennel, parsley, dill
Apart from these families, there are edibles belonging to other families that contain a variety of other plants we don’t normally sow in a vegetable garden.
Lettuce, for instance, is part of the daisy family. Spinach, corn, sunflower, okra, cress, endives, and chicory are other miscellaneous plants.
The rule of thumb when planning crop rotation is to alternate heavy feeders (plants that need lots of nutrients) with light feeders.
Brassicas, nightshades, corn, and lettuce are heavy feeders that require a lot of nitrogen to produce flowers and fruits.
They are best planted in the place of legumes, as these plants are known for fixing nitrogen in the soil.
GardenTroop Tip: When rotating crops, consider any exceptions such as perennial plants that stay in the soil all year round. Examples include herbs like mint, rosemary, or sage. Asparagus must also settle into a spot for years before it’s ready to be harvested. Plan crop rotation based on plant companionship, considering any plants that won’t be moved.
6. Plant Garlic
You can skip to the next step if garlic isn’t one of the plants you want to grow. If you do want garlic in your garden, however, now is the time to sow it.
Garlic – like most members of the allium family – is sensitive to day length and only matures during the longest days of summer.
Planting it in fall gives it a jumpstart in the growing season, so it’ll be one of the first crops to come up in spring.
Ideally, sow it a good three weeks prior to the ground freezing. In this way, it has enough time to develop roots without poking through the surface before winter.
7. Plant A Cover Crop
There are two ways to winter a vegetable garden – cover the ground in mulch or plant a cover crop.
The latter is the best choice if you don’t want to bother too much about weeds and want to keep the ground healthy with little effort. Cover crops also can increase the level of nutrients in the soil.
Cover crops are winter annuals such as forage legumes (alfalfa or crimson clover), cereals (winter wheat or winter rye), forage radish, rapeseed, mustard, or arugula.
8. Mulch The Walking Rows
Something new gardeners often overlook after cleaning the vegetable garden is the walking rows. Unless they are paved with stone pavers or another type of physical barrier, they are made up of just ground.
If you let them be, they could give weeds the perfect opportunity for establishing a presence in your garden.
An easy way to prevent this is by covering them with mulch.
Bark mulch is a great choice if you care about the aesthetic factor. Otherwise, turn grass clippings and dead leaves into mulch with your lawnmower, then spread it in a thick layer over the walking rows.
9. Clean Up Perennials
Perennials in a garden are made up of edibles, such as herbs, or flowers. During this stage, tend to the flower beds in your yard, too.
There is little to do other than cut off dead flowers. The leaves can stay on the plant until they fall off or you clean them in spring.
Some blooms are also fine to leave behind, especially if they have seeds that wildlife can eat during winter.
10. Rake Away Leaves (But Leave Some Behind)
Fallen leaves are perfectly fine to stay in the garden until spring, with one exception. They should never cover your lawn, or the turfgrass can get damaged.
After the last mowing of the season (late October to early November), rake away the grass clippings and fallen leaves, making sure the lawn is pristine.
Pile some of them in the corners of your garden; these piles provide pollinators with the perfect wintering home. They also provide shelter to other types of wildlife, including squirrels.
11. Mow Around The Trees
Just like you’re leaving the perennials and leaf piles into the corners of the yard, you should also leave the lawn grass longer.
Beneficial bugs and caterpillars often find shelter in the thatch, and a short lawn doesn’t do them any favors.
However, you should mow the grass around the trees. Rake any fallen leaves at the base of the trees too. The clean area will discourage rodent pests from nesting there.
Rodents nesting at the base of trees often feed on bark in the cold months, and they can kill your trees over the winter.
12. Compost Organic Debris
With the exception of vegetable crops, all organic debris from your garden is compostable.
This includes leaves you don’t want to pile up, grass clippings that aren’t used as mulch, smaller twigs and branches from pruned trees or shrubs, etc.
You can also add annual flowers that you have cleared up or blooms removed from perennials.
GardenTroop Advice: Most kitchen scraps and organic materials in your house can also go into a compost pile. Some refuse can even be used as fertilizer on its own, such as banana peels or coffee grounds. Before adding anything to the compost pile, shred it into small pieces. As far as garden debris goes, pile it up and shred it with the lawnmower before composting.
13. Bring Tender Plants Indoors
Do you have any delicate plants in pots? It isn’t recommended to winter them outside, and now is the time to move them indoors.
You don’t have to bring them inside the home. Wintering them in a greenhouse is usually fine, since most of them are dormant during winter anyway.
Potted plants that can survive harsh weather, such as ornamental grasses and shrubs, can be gathered together in a corner of the garden.
14. Clean Up And Sharpen Gardening Tools
The hard work is mostly done, so now it’s time to clean and sharpen your gardening tools.
Clean off dirt and debris from all tools, including spades, rakes, and shears. Clean the lawn mower too, then flip it and remove the blades.
Sharpen all cutting tools, including the mower’s blades.
If your lawn mower is battery-powered, remove the battery and store it in its charging station.
Preferably, store the battery and charging station inside your house (or in a heated garage) to slow down the loss of charge.
GardenTroop Tip: Before reinstalling the battery and putting the mower into use for the next season, recharge it to avoid disappointment.
15. Organize Your Garden Shed
As you’re using gardening and power tools throughout the warm season, it’s easy to lose order in the shed. Piling everything in a mess while wintering isn’t recommended, though.
Tools kept in a messy shed are more likely to rust over the winter. That’s because air circulation might not be optimal, and any accumulation of moisture could damage the metal parts.
In spring, it will also be more difficult to find the tools you need.
There is no right or wrong way to organize the shed. Just throw away everything that is broken or unnecessary.
Install hooks onto the walls to hang the tools and a few shelves to store miscellaneous items, such as potting soil bags, empty pots, sowing trays, and so on.
16. Water Your Trees And Shrubs
Trees and shrubs don’t need watering in winter if the temperature is lower than 40°F, or if the ground is covered in snow, regardless of the temperature.
Before wintering, though, you should give them one last drink.
Water all shrubs and trees on your property, giving them at least two to three inches of water.
If the weather stays warm and there is no rain, give them a deep watering every two weeks or about an inch of water per week otherwise.
17. Drain Hoses
Before the first frost, also make sure to drain all water hoses and faucets.
This will prevent water from freezing inside them – if this happens, the ice could damage the hose or fixtures, including any exposed water lines.
Rubber and silicone hoses should also be stored indoors, as the freezing temperatures can damage these materials.
Tidying up a fall garden is crucial, but you don’t have to make it spotless. As long as you clear the vegetable crops and remove debris from your lawn and around the trees, you can leave pretty much everything as it is.
Hopefully, the end-of-season checklist above can help you complete all necessary chores with as little hassle as possible.