Tips on Fall Garden Cleanup


In the fall, it used to be you cleaned up every last leaf like mad. It was considered good garden sanitation. But now we know otherwise: That’s bad for the environment, killing beneficial insects that love all the leaf litter, which keeps them warm during the winter, and interrupting the food web.

If we arm ourselves with power tools and aim to skip no section of the garden and leave no debris behind, we risk making a place that’s too tidy for the good of its inhabitants. Part of the environmental benefit of making the landscape in the first place could be erased. Except in the vegetable beds, where pest and disease pressures call for a more forceful hand — or where the remains of a sickly ornamental plant may need teasing out here and there — when it comes to cleanup, less is often more effective.


So how do you make a responsible plan that acknowledges both ecology and your horticultural goals? Maybe it’s better to think of fall garden cleanup as an editing job — not some wholesale, wall-to-wall regimen like vacuuming the living room.

Becca Rodomsky-Bish, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Margaret T. McGrath, a Cornell plant pathologist (both serious home gardeners beyond their day jobs), shared advice about how to proceed.

Within or below the leaf litter that accumulates in the autumn, so much unseen life exists. Given the chance, it will weather the off-season there.

While many gardeners have reduced mowed turf in the name of biodiversity, most still have some lawn. Allowing leaves to mat it down all winter risks damaging the grass. Either mow over the leaves (if there’s just a thin layer), returning their organic matter to the soil, or rake and move them to the garden’s perimeter or to vegetable beds where they can serve as mulch.

You may want to be tidiest along the front walkway and other high-traffic spots where slick leaf buildup isn’t practical or looks too messy.

Other little nods to horticulture: In beds where early blooming minor bulbs like winter aconite (Eranthis), crocus or snowdrops might not be able to push up through heavy leaves, rake those spots now; in the spring, you won’t be able to do any raking until after the bulbs flower. And leave little pockets of open soil beneath the spots where you hope biennials and self-sowing annuals will grow; mulch will stifle their success.

Around ornamental plants with a reputation for harboring diseases that can survive in fallen debris — think peonies, roses or fruit trees showing signs of trouble — move spore-filled material away from the immediate area.

One worry voiced by some gardeners, Ms. Rodomsky-Bish said, is that less scrupulous cleanup creates a habitat for ticks, creatures of the leaf litter. So here’s a compromise: Don’t cart away bagged leaves; instead, move them away from areas near the house that you frequent most. Establish looser outer spaces that can accommodate leaf litter, a small brush pile and a gentler overall management style.

In neighborhoods where a manicured front lawn with not a leaf in sight is the norm or even dictated by the homeowners’ association code, there could be pushback.

“Those fruits, or affected tissue removed from a salvageable one, really shouldn’t go in the compost unless a gardener knows they have a good and long compost process,” she said.

In some cases — with certain bacterial speck, spot or canker of tomatoes, for instance — pathogens can survive the winter on stakes and cages.

“Hose them off to remove debris and soil, then disinfect with a bleach-and-water solution of 1:9 dilution,” Dr. McGrath said. The gear needs to soak in disinfectant for 10 to 30 minutes.

Sanitation is the organic gardener’s best tool for insect pest reduction, too. Thorough cleanup, pulling plants and removing them to a distance can reduce overwintering opportunities for common opponents — that includes squash bugs; Brassica pests, such as various cabbageworm species; and cucumber and bean beetles.

A thorough cleanup, however, doesn’t mean leaving the soil bare, Dr. McGrath noted. Be sure to promote soil health by keeping the surface covered. She keeps hers mulched year-round. Use grass clippings or leaves that you’ve moved off the lawn. Or make some “straw” mulch, as she and her husband do, by chipping the remains of ornamental grasses in the spring after they’ve been cut down.

And as you go, you should also make notes. Look around critically: Document what worked and what didn’t, on paper or with photos. Take particular notice of how rich, or lacking, your fall-into-winter garden is in habitat-supporting elements like fruit- and seed-bearing native shrubs (and messiness), and look for spots where you can raise those quotients later.



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