Tips & Considerations for a Conscious Fall Clean-up

Crappy weather got you down? Me too. The garden needs cleaning. Or does it? Back in the day as a new apprentice, I loved fall clean-up. Everything was cut down. raked up, mulched for winter, and hedges – wrapped to perfection like oversized fruitcake loaves… Formal gardens are full of rules for tidiness; but we did very little to consider overwintering biodiversity.

I know its late in November. But if you can still hear the buzzing of backpack blowers, you still have time – I promise!

I will say that I started to write this post mid November. It started snowing and didn’t stop for two days. It has all since melted, then dried and snowed again. It is now the first week of December, and snowing again…I didn’t realize how long this was going to take to post… I seem to have exposed myself.

It’s snowing, but if it melts, do we go ahead and clean? Forgive me if I lose motivation….

Nevermind. We are going to plow through and discuss the fall clean-up. Just in case the snow melts in the coming days and you feel motivated. (I think we both know the winter wonderland will be too much to bother with a fall clean-up. I don’t judge – I’m a blog!)

So what do I need to consider when home-gardening my fall cleanup?

  1. Seeds for next year or self-seeding by overwintering native species – aka, I like wildlife. If you want to save seeds, wait for a dry day to collect them to share next spring. Seeds make excellent food for overwintering birds and wildlife to sustain them in the cold months. And because animals are such a mess when they eat, they also help to spread seeds they miss! If you like them to self-seed naturally, don’t be so gung-ho on cutting everything down when putting your garden to bed. Besides, if the flowers can stand on their own, they are excellent for winter interest.
  2. How “clean” do you want it? That’s up to you. I allow up to 70% mess for overwintering beneficial and predatory insects. But I take down finished hostas and iris greens, herbs and anything tender. I also trim back my neighbour’s rose of sharon (they let me), as they self-seed so aggressively and I don’t want to spend my summer pulling out seedlings.
  3. To blow or not to blow? As a landscaper, I invested in a gas-operated backpack blower. (Actually, it was an anniversary present from my husband – he’s so romantic!). These can set you back about $500-$800 depending on the age and model. If it’s for your home garden, hand blowers exist, but I have found them hard on your wrists and forearm, not to mention awkward. It’s totally up to you. As one who practices sustainable function, a rake of two sizes, a broom, some shears and my secateurs are just fine. I only use the blower when I am totally outnumbered by debris and to save time on a client’s property. The blower is just to get ALL the debris out of the beds. You still need to clean up the finished foliage and cut back old growth for next year.
  4. If you’ve decided to blow, a hand blower is sufficient. I am not a fan of corded models, as it is a trip hazard. There are many new sustainable focused models that are battery operated – just make sure to purchase extra batteries. The thrust is substantially lower than a gas-operated blower but if your yard is in the 10ft x 25ft range, what you don’t have won’t make you less productive.
  5. Give yourself time. A fully operational landscaping crew has two or more workers running back and forth to meet time commitments. They look fast (they are), and have the training and practice to fulfill primary functions of (in this case) cleanup: getting debris, cutting back foliage, tidiness (blowing), then leaving. You are in your garden, so enjoy the process and the exercise. Your garden can take a few hours or a couple of days, depending on how neurotic you are about perfection.

The What & How of Clean:

Work your way from top to bottom & bag as you go-

Shrubs and trees: I have rose bushes, rose of sharon, and mulberry at my front yard. The neighbours have two cedars towering into my space and it blocks off the sun during the summer. There’s a rule of not cutting back rose of sharon – but I want to stunt them and stop them from seeding into my property. I cut these back to the main branches, or I cut their seed heads off by 4″ or wait until spring to deadhead before seeds start to drop with the thaw.

I cut back my mulberry stems to 1ft. from the main stems, or a reasonably appealing shape. This does not deter the productivity of the berries. Mulberries fruit on new growth, so you’re really doing it a favour. It’s the same mess year after year. Mine is in decline, but we love jam so I’m not partial to cutting the bastard down yet.

I leave my rosebush until next spring. Wait until you start seeing the buds green or take colour to prune. Depending on the cultivar, and their location, they can be really temperamental about pruning.

I will wait until mid-late December(this week) to thin out the Cedar. The goal is to push the growth back to the trunk but not strip it so the birds still have a home . (I will post this later.)

I cut down the iris. If they’re still green but flagging (tops drooping), they can tidied by cutting them down to 4″ from the ground so the space is still full without being sloppy. Irises for the most part are very drought and salt tolerant, so I won’t be shy about it.

Cut down the perennials. I have ornamental grasses, brown-eyed-susan, echinacea, yarrow, tickseed, etc. Perennials make excellent homes for birds and food and winter interest in the garden. I will take them down in late spring. Plants like the ones mentioned are ideal hosts for overwintering beneficial insects and their eggs. Some commercial landscapers will cut almost everything down in the fall then clean the garden beds of the winter debris starting April 1st. If you are wanting to practice ecological stewardship, Do your spring cleaning early-mid May, so the insects will have a fighting chance after hatching. You will still have time to plant new perennials of your liking and sow cold hardy vegetables at that time. Annuals and tender vegetables can be planted late May.

I cut down my tender perennials like mint and greek oregano. I’ll be blunt – once they go through freeze-thaw, they look gross. If you get them before the frost, you can dry them and save them over the winter for tea and cooking – yum!

If you are growing horseradish: dig up half of them after the first or second frost. Leave the rest in the ground. If you don’t the roots in the spring begin to “escape” by it’s rhizomes. these are roots that “run” underground and before you know it, you have horseradish everywhere. I harvested a hefty three taproots and have a boastful jar sitting in my fridge. Some will be gifted, of course. I can’t possibly eat that much horseradish in one winter…

Bag your debris as you go. If you are trying to close your garden waste loop, use it. Keep some of your green debris for your compost bin/heap, and leave a bunch a long your fence lines for overwintering insects and wildlife. The rest, you can guiltlessly pack to your heart’s content and leave it for garbage day.

Do a final quick sweep of the left over debris (or blow), and you’re done.

I hope this give you a somewhat working map of garden cleanup. I don’t have grass. But when I did many moons ago, I was mowing right into late October, or as long as the weather was mild, and the grass was still growing. If you have a hedge, that is to be pruned in summer. So don’t touch it now. It is now close to Christmas, while fall is quite forgotten. So I hope this will be a source worth checking with when cleaning next year. I will most definitely post my spring clean-up tips come May – lots to prune and take away again.

-Lindsay