As fall comes into its own, we prepare our thanksgiving turkeys while watching the leaves fall gently outside. The pressures and daily chores of summer gardening have eased and our vegetable beds no longer require daily watering and care. There is however, one more chore on every gardener's mind; fall clean up. When to do it? What really needs to be done? What is the best way to do it?
WHEN to clean up is dependent on the type of plants you have growing in your space. Trees and shrubs rarely need any fall care while perennials and tropicals will need more consideration. Non-hardy perennials and tropical plants can be dug from the ground, planted in containers, and placed in a protected place such as a garage or shed if you desire to keep them over winter. Gardeners lucky enough to have access to a greenhouse or sunroom can keep their tropicals growing and even blooming throughout winter. This of course will need to be done before night time temperatures drop below 50 degrees F. As I decide when to cut back perennials and trimming shrubs, I like to consider the possible benefits to wildlife in my area. If there are seeds, berries, or other resources present for birds and wildlife, I leave them be until those resources are no longer present. Plants such as cannas, salvias, and hardy hibiscus are cut back to ground level and usually before the first frost makes them mushy and difficult to work with. Perhaps the most difficult of all is the pulling of annuals which have provided so much color and beauty through the season. These I prefer to wait until they have well and truly bloomed their last and are killed by the first hard frost.
The answer to WHAT needs to be done, really comes down to what is most important to you. Some gardeners love the clean look of a lawn free of leaves while others prefer to let them lie allowing the life cycle of insect eggs and cocoons harboring in those leaves to continue. I personally like to keep my lawn cleared of leaves and looking neat while allowing leaves that have gathered in the landscape beds to remain harboring both insect life and improving my soil as they break down over time.
How you manage your fall clean up chores will depend greatly on the tools and resources you have available (including time!). I like to mulch and collect the leaves from my lawn using a lawn mower, then place the chopped leaves on top of my vegetable and landscape beds for mulch. This helps keep soil temperatures warmer through winter and improves the condition and fertility of my soil for spring planting when spring comes around. Stalks and stems cut from perennials that are too large for mulch can be added to your compost pile along with any extra chopped leaves or grass clippings. Allowing these things to break down over winter will reduce your out of pocket expense for soil amendments in the spring. If you don't have the time or equipment needed to mulch these items, consider placing them in brown paper lawn bags available at any big box
garden or home improvement store. Most towns and cities in North Texas have a yard waste collection policy in which these biodegradable items are collected and composted by the city. This keeps unnecessary items out of the city dumps. I highly encourage you to find out what you city's yard waste program involves and when these items should be placed on the curb for collection.
Finally, the process of cleaning out my garden beds is a great opportunity to reflect on the success (or lack of!) that I experienced this growing year. Did I enjoy the color and structure combinations of the plants in that area? What colors and shapes do I want to add or change for next year? Which vegetables were most productive and how can I rotate my crops to prevent soil born diseases and insect infestations? This is the very beginning of my favorite winter garden activity: learning and planning.
Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving and a quick garden clean up,