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    12 Tips for Fall Cleanup

    Authored by Leah Chester-Davis

    Fall is the time to put your garden to bed for the season. There are several light chores that will tidy up your garden, help reduce or minimize weeds, diseases, and pests, ensure certain plants have the winter protection they need, and get you prepared for garden enjoyment next spring. Here are 12 garden cleanup tips to consider:

    1. Clean up fall leaves.

    Fall leaves are a rich source of nutrients for your garden beds. Rather than raking them up and collecting into bags to send off to a landfill, take advantage of nature’s gift to enrich your soil. Rake into piles and run the lawn mower through them a few times to cut and chop the leaves. This will facilitate them breaking down much more quickly. Use the leaves as mulch and spread around plants or mix into garden soil to decompose, improving soil tilth. Or add them to a compost pile or use them for sheet composting.

    2. Allow perennial beds to serve as wildlife habitat.

    By fall, most perennials have completed their showy displays. For a tidier look, it may be tempting to cut back the dried stems and remove seed heads, but both are valuable to wildlife. Songbirds are attracted to the seedheads and some pollinators find the stems useful habitat. Instead of removing the entire stem and seed heads, leave them for wildlife friends to forage but remove any diseased growth. Any dead stems can be cut and removed next spring as new growth begins.

    3. Remove spent annuals and vegetable plants.

    Some gardeners use the chop-and-drop method, where plants are cut off at ground level, leaving the roots in the ground. The leaf and flower stems are chopped into smaller pieces and left to decompose in the garden. If you’re wanting a tidier look, cover them with mulch or simply throw them onto the compost pile. However, if any plants, such as tomatoes, are diseased, pull them up and discard them to help reduce disease problems in the coming growing season.

    4. Pull and dispose of weeds.

    In the fall, mature weeds typically have seeds. It’s best to remove them from the garden. Avoid placing in the compost pile. Discard outside of the garden.

    5. Save some plants for overwintering.

    If you have space and wish to get a head start with your plants for the next growing season, take cuttings of plants or move them indoors. A few plants lend themselves well to this, including many types of coleus, geraniums, and begonias.

    6. Dig up tender bulbs and tubers.

    A few plants, such as dahlias, cannas, elephant ears, gladiolus, will last many seasons but their bulbs or tubers, depending on the plant, will need to be dug up and stored in a cool, dry place over the winter. After the first frost and when their growth dies back, it’s time to dig them up. Allow them to dry out before storing in wood shavings or vermiculite in cardboard boxes.

    7. Mulch around trees and shrubs.

    Any plant, especially younger ones, or those more sensitive to colder temperatures, will benefit from a layer of mulch for added protection. Adding a couple of inches of mulch around trees and shrubs is a good way to use leaves while adding a bit of insulation to tree and shrub roots. Do not mound mulch against the plant stems.

    8. Add extra protection in colder climates.

    In particularly cold regions of the country, younger plants may benefit from being wrapped with burlap or encircled with a wire cage that is filled with shredded leaves. 

    9. Avoid heavy pruning.

    It’s usually best to prune in late winter or early spring. Pruning during fall cleanup can result in new growth which can get damaged when temperatures dip.

    10. Think ahead.

    If you are considering an additional planting space for ornamentals or vegetable plants in the coming spring, now is the time to start preparing a bed. Consider sheet mulching. Start with a layer of cardboard and on top pile a 12-inch layer of fall clean-up material such as grass clippings, leaves, and garden debris topped by a layer of wood chips. The cardboard suppresses grass and weed growth, the organic materials decompose over the winter months, and next spring you will have a space for additional plantings without having to use herbicides or do strenuous digging. Even if you aren’t creating a new bed, a layer of straw over your garden can help suppress weeds while adding organic matter. 

    11. Get your soil tested.

    If you haven’t had a soil test in three to five years, when you’re putting the garden to bed in the fall is an ideal time to take soil samples. Soil test kits are available from most county Extension centers, and the test is usually a nominal fee. It will provide recommendations for amendments your soil may need for optimal plant growth. By testing your soil in the fall and following recommendations, you’ll be on your way to gardening success next spring. 

    12. Clean up and store tools and plant supports.

    Remove stakes, cages, or other plant supports. Brush or wash off dirt and debris and allow to dry before storing. Roll up hoses and store. Give special attention to your tools before putting them away. A good cleaning will prolong their life and have them ready to go the next gardening season. Disinfecting them will help reduce the spread of disease.