When it comes to fall yard and garden cleanup, we have evolved our thinking. It’s not necessary to hack everything down, but that doesn’t mean do nothing. Let’s cleanup our yards the right way.
With cooler weather and fewer insects, it’s also easier to do this work in autumn, not during freezing temperatures. So let’s get going …
1. REMOVING LAYERS OF LEAVES
Don’t be a perfectionist. Some leaf litter is natural and allows our pollinators (butterflies, ladybugs, etc.) to nestle to overwinter. And the more insects you have, the more feathered friends can feast, too.
However, you shouldn’t leave thick layers of leaves on your lawn; this blocks sunlight and air from reaching your grass but also encourage disease.
If your lawn is being buried, the lack of light and the trapped moisture can put the grass into a weakened state to survive yet another winter.
Of course, get rid of any fallen leaves that have disease (eq., Maple black spot disease) or the spores will come out in the spring and reinfect the emerging leaves.
Also, make sure leaves don’t pile up too thickly over the crowns of your plants.
See more about fall leaf cleanup.
We like to use a mulching mower or leaf blower with a mulching feature to shred leaves. Make sure your mower is aggressive enough to chop leaves into small enough bits that they can sift past the grass to drop to the ground. It is easier to get dry leaves to shatter into pieces than wet clumps, so it is important to choose your day.
Using shredded leaves to feed the compost file and also as mulch on garden beds to feed earthworms, beneficial microbes, and the soil. What doesn’t decompose over winter can be cleaned up in spring and the volume of leaves will be greatly reduced. Remember: Leaves are garden gold! See more about the value of leaves.
De-Thatch and Possibly Aerate
If you do have a lawn, de-thatch in the fall. Thatch is that yellowish-brown grass that lies underneath the living, green grass. It’s important to avoid thatch buildup, as it keeps nutrients and water from filtering down to the grass’s roots. Vigorously rake out the thatch on cool-season grasses in the early fall. This gives the grass time to recover from the stress of being de-thatched. If you have serious soil compaction, you also may need to aerate your lawn, which requires renting a lawn aerator from a home improvement store to create holes that will deliver oxygen, water, and nutrients into your soil.
2. FERTILIZE AND WEED YOUR LAWN
Early autumn is the best time to lightly fertilize your lawn to promote root growth and prepare it for the next growing season. Don’t wait until spring, as the fertilizer will be less effective then. In the fall, your grass needs to recover from the summer heat and can best use the nutrients provided by a fertilizer. Use a turf builder or fertilizer meant for winterizing lawns (with a low middle number for NPK such as 32-0-10).
If you seed a lawn, you certainly want the seeds to thrive without competition for nutrients from troublemaking perennial broadleaf weeds. Fall is the best time to address this issue; don’t wait until spring, when weeds emerge. Perennial broadleaf weeds are transporting food (carbohydrates) from their foliage to their roots in preparation for winter. Visit your local garden center to find out about organic and traditional weed solutions.
3. CHECK THE SOIL PH OF YOUR LAWN
Autumn is a great time to ensure that your lawn will be healthy and happy next year. Get a soil test to see if your soil is lacking in nutrients or has a pH that isn’t ideal for growing the type of grass that you have. Learn more about soil health.
Contact your local Cooperative Extension, which typically provides free or low-cost soil tests, or purchase a test kit from your local home improvement store or garden center. If the test shows excessive acidity, you’ll want to apply lime. If your soil is too alkaline, you’ll apply sulfur. See how to test your soil.
4. OVERSEED LAWN GRASSES
It’s also a good time to overseed your lawn so that it’s thicker and lusher next season. To overseed, first cut your grass shorter than usual, then remove the grass clippings and lightly spread seed across the entire lawn with a fertilizer spreader, following instructions on the grass seed bag for overseeding. Keep lightly watered until new growth is at least 3 inches tall.
5. SAVE SEEDS AND POLLINATORS
If you are busy deadheading your flowers, stop! Take a look at the seed heads that you are cutting off. Instead of removing these seed heads, let some of them ripen until they turn brown and split open. These seed capsules are like salt shakers full of tiny seeds. Scatter the seeds anywhere that you would like them to grow or just let them drop where they are. And leave some dried seed heads for the birds, too! Learn more about 20 self-sowing flowers.
Also, leave many of your flowers and plants through the winter for the pollinators. Native bees will “hibernate” in the hollow stem of a bee balm plant, butterflies will overwinter in a chrysalis hanging from a dead plant, birds will flit around spent sunflowers, and caterpillars will roll into the seed pod of milkweed plant.
The only plants we regularly cut back every year are bearded iris because the iris borers overwinter in/on the foliage. Everything else is left standing.
Of course, cut back any foliage that is diseased. For example, peonies with botrytis or plant foliage with powdery mildew. It’s not cure-all but may cut down on issues next year. (Rotating your plants is also wise since many fungal diseases are soil-borne.)
In the vegetable garden, you can also collect any dried seeds from open-pollinated flowers and veggies to sow next year. See how to save flower and vegetable seeds for replanting.
Another option is to dry some of those flowers, seed heads, and herbs, especially from plants like hydrangea and yarrow. Then you can enjoy the beautiful dried blooms indoors during the winter. See how to dry flowers.
Finally, fall is a good time to take small cuttings of plants to overwinter before transplanting them outdoors in the spring. We especially love growing herbs indoors. See how to start herbs from cuttings.
6. WINTERIZE GARDEN BEDS
Clean up your vegetable beds. While ornamental beds can show off their winter beauty, veggie beds need to be cleaned up .
It’s especially important to pull out any pest-infested vegetable plants or plants that were plagued by a fungal disease, like powdery mildew or blight.
Some gardeners will leave even plants that aren’t diseased because they provide overwintering sites for predatory beneficial insects. We leave that to your discretion. In some climates, having very wet foliage simply attracts white mold and disease.
If you do have diseased flower or vegetable plants, remove them and either burn them, discard them, or bury them where they won’t see the light of day for at least a year.
In the flower garden, wait until the first hard, killing frost and remove the diseased plant material while it is still limp and does not crumble. This will help with disease control for next season.
Do not compost diseased plants, such as peony leaves infected with powdery mildew, as diseases may persist in your compost pile.
If perennials are completely buried, it will be necessary to rake or broom and knock the leaves off the tops of plants.
We like to put a thin layer of leaves over smaller garden beds (or, plant a cover crop for large beds) to protect the topsoil and enrich the soil. Just be careful to use only a thin layer of leaves; you don’t want to create a habitat for diseases and pests.
Some gardeners like to enrich their garden beds with compost in the fall. Others save their composting for spring, as it can be an expensive material. If you do have extra compost to add in the fall, do so, as it will help out the earthworms that work it into the soil. This may be preferable to tilling, which can expose weed seeds.
Finally, many gardeners will cover their beds with old carpet, tarp, or landscape fabric to ensure that no sunlight gets to those weed seeds and that you have a clean slate with which to work come spring!
7. CLEAN YOUR GUTTERS
Ensure that your gutters are clear of fall leaves, especially before the snow falls. Otherwise, you may have bigger problems as ice dams form. Remove leaves around your house’s foundation, too, and in other places that invite rotting and mold. The easiest way to clear out blockages is to use a leaf blower with a rain gutter attachment.
8. COMPOST YOUR LEAVES
The most efficient way to use leftover leaves is to add them to a compost pile—along with your grass clippings, vegetable waste, annual weeds, straw, and other organic matter. Once decomposed, the compost makes wonderful, free, nutrient-rich plant food. See how to get your compost heap cooking.
Before the snows fall, turn your compost and cover your compost bin with tarp so that all that work is stored for spring!
You can also create leaf mold with leaves. Unlike compost, a mix of different organic matter, leaf mold is made purely of decomposing leaves. See how to make leaf mold.
9. WINTERIZE TREES AND SHRUBS
In regions with heavy snow, you want to give your trees and shrubs the best chance of surviving.
Do not prune trees and shrubs. Even if they look a little overgrown, wait until next spring. Pruning involves removing tissue and opening wounds in a plant that still has the winter to contend with. The injuries have no time to heal
and could weaken or kill the shrub or tree. Pruning also stimulates a tree or shrub to attempt to grow and any new growth produced in the fall is likely to be killed because it has not had any time to harden off or become woodier.
Cover small trees and deciduous shrubs with a wooden structure to protect them from heavy snow. Or, circle them with a cylinder of chicken wire fencing and fill in the space between the tree and the fence with straw or leaves. Or, drive stakes into the ground at four corners around the plant and wrap burlap or heavy plastic around the stakes, securing it at the top, center, and bottom with twine.
For young fruit trees, it’s often a good idea to wrap the lower trunk of the tree with a pestproof tree wrap, which will prevent mice and voles from gnawing on the tree’s bark during the winter.
Slow down any watering in early fall; once the trees’ leaves have dropped (but before the ground freezes), give all trees and shrubs a deep watering, covering the entire canopy area.
10. CLEAN YOUR TOOLS
Last but not least, late autumn is the best time to clean your tools! If you have a lawn mower, drain out the gas. Turn off the water for the hose. Clean, sand, and oil your garden tools before storing them for the winter.
Clean out cold frames if you use them for a head start on spring vegetable growing. Learn more about building a cold frame.
While you’re cleaning, make sure that those bird feeders are cleaned up and ready for winter use!
See more about feeding garden birds in winter.