My Dogwood Project: The Beginning
Introducing . . . The Museum of Me

Fall Gardening Week 1: Less is More

It's September.

Time for a lot of gardeners to just . . . be done with it. To stop angsting about what's blooming. Or not blooming. Or what needs weeding. Or why the planters look so terrible. Because gardening is A Lot Of Work. And no matter how much we love our gardens, my goodness . . . we're ready for a break.

But.

We're not finished yet, my gardening friends!
Fall . . . is THE best time to get your garden in shape for . . . next spring. (When - trust me - you'll be thirsty for it!)

So . . . for the remaining Thursdays in September, I'll be bringing you tips and advice for . . . 

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Let's get our gardens in shape . . . for spring. Shall we?

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When I first started gardening . . . in the way, WAY back days . . . fall was a super busy time in the garden for me. Because back then? It was ALL about "good garden sanitation." You know . . . cutting back ALL the perennials. Raking up every last leaf and bit of old mulch. It was very much about leaving no debris behind.

But then, I got smarter! I became a Master Gardener in the early 2000s and became fluent in The Gospel of the Messy Fall Garden. Now I know that being too tidy in your garden when fall rolls around . . . is actually bad for the environnment, for your garden, and for its inhabitants. (Please note: I'm talking about perennial gardens here, NOT vegetable gardens which require a thorough "cleaning up" in the fall.)

When it comes to a fall perennial garden cleanup, doing less . . .  is much more effective.

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According to Margaret Roach (my very favorite gardening expert and author) (if you like gardening books, do check out her recently reissued A Way to Garden - one of my favorites), fall gardening cleanup should be an "editing job" -- rather than a "wholesale, wall-to-wall regimen like vacuuming the living room."

Why? Well . . . guess what's living just under the leaf litter and leftover mulch that accumulates in your garden in the fall? Unseen life, that's what! Overwintering insects, ground-nesting bees, pupating caterpillars, detrivores (millipedes and the like), spiders. These guys - all beneficial to your garden and our environment, in general - shelter under the leaf litter all winter long, so if we mow or shred or rake everything up in the fall, we're doing more harm than good. Same goes for our fading plants. If you cut all your perennials back in the fall, you're harming the birds and other pollinators by depriving them of food sources, hiding places, and sheltering spots.

Horticulturists will tell you to follow "nature's example" and let everything lie where it falls. That's not always feasible in an urban garden or home landscape, but there are lots of things we can do to let things remain a little looser - and a little messier - in the fall. For example, I get the leaves off my lawn, but I leave them lie in my flower beds. I cut back perennials that flop over entirely onto the ground, but mostly, I just leave my perennials to "just be" for the winter. (If I suspect any plants have disease issues, I do cut them back or rip them out entirely in the fall. I don't want to overwinter diseased plants if I can help it.) I also . . . continue to weed. Because "messy gardening" does not mean "full of weeds."

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Yeah, you'll have to do the clean-up in the spring. But it's actually easier then. And, besides, you'll be WAY more excited to get back out there and garden again in March . . . than you will be in October. (Don't rush out there to garden too soon in the spring, though. Ecologists at Cornell University recommend waiting until after at least five consecutive 50-degree days before you begin working in your garden again. If you start too soon, you risk squandering all your fall "messy" efforts.)

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Fall is a great time to take stock of your garden-year just wrapping up, too. Take notes. Document what worked and what didn't. Maybe take a few photos to remind you of areas you'd like to work on next year. Fall is a great time for planting and transplanting (stay tuned: that's next week's Fall Gardening topic), and as the leaves begin to fall from the trees, you'll be able to assess your future pruning needs, too. 

So.

As you begin putting your garden "to bed" for the season, remember: Less is More. Less work for you this fall . . . will translate to a healthier garden - and environment - in the spring.

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Additional Resources:

Read up on The Habitat Network's guide to Messy Gardening and take the Pledge to Be A Lazy Gardener. This site lists action steps you can take to encourage a "messy garden" and create a healthy environment for pollinators.

Margaret Roach's list of September garden chores is helpful as you prepare your garden (both perennial and vegetable) for winter.

Here are Six Reasons NOT to Clean Up Your Garden This Fall from The Savvy Gardener.

Looking for information about how to prepare your vegetable garden for winter? Check out this comprehensive list of fall vegetable garden chores.

 

Comments

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Bonny

I have been a lazy fall gardener before I knew it was a thing! I'm done with all the flower beds, and I actually like how my hydrangeas and clematis look in the fall. But there's a lot to do in the vegetable garden, and we're still harvesting beans and tomatoes for maybe another month. Then it's time for ripping out bedraggled beans and tired tomatoes and putting it to bed under a bed of straw.

Juliann

I am definitely on team messy gardeners. That is what I love about perennials. I have been digging and clearing an area that I imagine with be home to some garden pots next year but I am happy to have given up on vegetable gardening.

Geri

So here is a question. I have several perennial geranium plants that got all scraggly in the late summer. I’d like to shape them a bit this fall. Would that be recommended? I will pull a phlox plant that just has not performed well for a few years but I think I’ll let the rest go. Thanks for the tip!

Patty

Passed this on to the boss. :-) Thank-you!

Carole

You first told me about this approach to fall gardening a few years ago and I've embraced it ever since. I do cut back the butterfly bush and beauty berry, though, because otherwise they flop all over the place! And weeding. Oy. The weeds are flourishing right now and I need to get out there and do something about it. I'm looking forward to next week's post on planting because I have a question about planting a hydrangea.

Vera

Ha! Seems I've been too harsh on Fletch all these years - LOL

Carolyn

What a fantastic series--thank you! And since I'm about a month behind you, this will be especially helpful! (I might avoid the "Whoops...I just did that...and I guess I shouldn't have!"). It's in the upper 90s here now (UGH), so we're doing morning weeding but NOT MUCH ELSE! And it sounds like that's just right! Looking forward to next week, as I'm planning to transplant a slew of coral bells who got way too much sun this summer.... Fun stuff you have in store for us! Thank you!

Sarah

You know I'm not very knowledgeable about gardening, but I am patting myself on the back for knowing about the leaves and that we should leave (hah!) them be. I actually have been thinking about that a lot lately as I've seen landscapers out blowing leaves everywhere in the neighborhood. I will admit that I do take some of the leaves and put them in my composter, but I try to take them from the back corner of our lot where nothing is actually growing.

Karel

I'm ready for next week's lesson! I just got my wildflowers from National Wildlife Federation. Oy!

Mary

oh my - more Overstory here - the best thing we can do for the forests is to DO NOTHING. I love how your hands on experience with the garden shows the truth in that!

Caffeine Girl

This is very helpful for this budding gardener.
I do have a vegetable garden, though, so I'm glad to know that I do need to clear that out!

Jane

What an excellent post. I am in the camp of "by August I'm weary of gardening." It is hot, buggy, and muggy. I have a strip of perennial flowers that needs a good weeding. The weeds are thriving. In a week or so, when the temperatures are cooler, I hope to make one more pass to pull weeds. Lots of clean-up remains in the tomato patch and raised vegetable bed. I leave Spring clean-up into April depending on the weather. I feel like what remains from last year protects against late frost.

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