Autumn garden cleanup do's and don'ts

By Nan Fischer For Taos News
Posted 10/12/19

Frost has arrived signaling the end of the growing season and time for garden cleanup. There are two schools of thought about fall chores. One calls for a …

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Autumn garden cleanup do's and don'ts


Frost has arrived signaling the end of the growing season and time for garden cleanup. There are two schools of thought about fall chores. One calls for a thorough cleaning of the whole landscape, while the other says leave it all until spring.

I am usually ready for the season to be over by October, so cleanup waits until spring. I do remove diseased or insect infested plants and their surrounding mulch to eliminate or at least reduce their recurrence the following year. Squash bugs, tomato hornworms, cucumber beetles, grasshoppers and powdery mildew are a few things that can be reduced through cultural practices that include fall cleanup.

One year, though, in a burst of energy, I cut everything back to the ground and dutifully composted the healthy plant material. I Weedwhacked the grasses, too. The yard looked unusually and beautifully tidy. But after the first major snowfall, there was nothing to look at but a vast expanse of blinding white. I never did that again! Visual winter interest is as important as the beautiful flowers and greenery of summer.


There are many other reasons to leave garden "debris" alone. Just as insect pests overwinter in it, so do beneficial insects and pollinators. Native bees spend the winter in perennial flower stalks, leaf litter, rock piles and dead trees. Some butterflies overwinter in any of their life cycle stages - egg, caterpillar, chrysalis or adult. They roll up into fallen leaves, or hide in the soil, dead trees or seed pods. Ladybugs hibernate as adults under tree bark and in leaf litter.

If you remove all the insect habitat, you will have fewer birds by disrupting the food chain. Birds eat seeds, too, though, and that is another great reason to leave your flower stalks up for winter. Through my kitchen window, I have marveled at a downy woodpecker hanging on a hollyhock flower stalk to eat the seeds. Sparrows and finches nosh on Maximilian sunflower seed stalks, and juncos and other ground feeders eat fallen sunflower seeds and those of wild and cultivated ground covers.

The dormant winter landscape is also beautiful to look at. The low angle of the sun casts interesting kinds of light and shadows on it throughout the day. Snow collects on seedpods and branches, and dried grasses wave above a 2-inch snowfall, reminding us of a season gone by and a new one to arrive. My acre of snow I had to look at after I cut everything back was the least attractive my yard has ever been.

So do clean up disease- and insect-affected plants and throw them away - but don't clean up healthy dried perennials, grasses, leaves and ground covers.

Other October chores

If you have a lawn, rake leaves off of it to keep them from smothering the grass. Chop them up by running over them with the lawn mower. Use as mulch or add to the compost pile. You can also pile them up out of the way to create overwintering habitat for insects and pollinators. Reseed bare spots, aerate the soil and apply a high phosphorus fertilizer for strong root growth.

Weed your flower and vegetable gardens to keep weeds at bay next year. If you have an irrigation system, drain it. Pull up surface irrigation, such as soaker hoses, and put it away.

Collect seed from your favorite varieties to grow next spring. You can also sprinkle them in different areas of the garden to let them sprout on their own next year.

Plant spring flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, tulips, snowdrops, hyacinth, Muscari, crocuses and allium. Plant trees and shrubs once they are dormant. They will put energy into establishing roots now and have more vigor for flowering in the spring.

Divide perennials to thin them out. Replant, give away or trade with gardening friends. Use two flat tine pitchforks, back to back, to separate the root balls and keep the roots intact. A shovel cuts the roots necessary for the plants to get re-established before the ground freezes.

Cover your beds with a couple inches of compost or composted manure. When the ground is frozen, add four inches of mulch to keep the plants from heaving in warm spells.

Clean plant supports, garden art and tools, and wipe down with a 10 percent solution of bleach in water. Oil your tool blades and store out of the elements.

Empty your container gardens, compost the healthy plants and save the soil for next year. If you used perennials, plant them in your flower beds.

Plans for next year

If you don't already have a map of your yard, make one now before you forget what grew where. Simple labeled drawings of each bed will help you identify plants as they come up next year. I have been known to pull new perennials because I failed to make a note of them.

I can't stress the importance of keeping records. Now is a good time to start a garden journal with thoughts on what plants worked well, what did not, what could be moved to a new location and so on. Are there certain colors or textures you want? Do you need shade trees? Do you like your irrigation set up? Do you need new tools or equipment? What could you use to make your gardens and yard better?

Make plans for next year, including hardscaping. Patios, fences, walkways, trellises and sheds are just as big a part of your landscape as the plants are. Start thinking about new projects for spring, and spend the winter ruminating over them, now that your gardens are shut down for the season.


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