Performing fall cleanup in your garden is a crucial part of preparing for winter. From removing old crops to feeding your soil, the steps you take in the autumn set you up for a more successful spring.
Some tasks, like removing diseased plants and protecting frost-tender perennials, are crucial for a healthy garden. But many common cleanup tasks aren’t actually necessary. They could even hinder your garden’s growth!
There’s no denying that all the raking, pruning, and hauling of fall can be hard work. Fortunately, you can eliminate these 7 steps to make your work easier and still nurture your garden ecosystem.
Simplify Your Fall Cleanup: Skip These Steps!
Skip unnecessary yard chores to create an eco-friendly garden while benefiting local wildlife.
While your neighbors laboriously throw themselves into the old fall cleanup routine, raking and bagging all their leaves, tilling and weeding bare soil, and yanking up old plants, you could be sipping hot cocoa by the fire! Many of us have been taught that a pristine autumn yard is essential for garden success. But the truth is that many of the yard cleaning tasks ingrained in our routines are unnecessary.
Some of these common chores harm our yard’s ecology and make our gardens more vulnerable to problems like erosion, weeds, and plant death. Moreover, we often forget that our local wildlife friends, like birds, bees, and beneficial insects, need food and shelter over the winter, too!
Fortunately, you can achieve these goals without leaving behind a cluttered, messy garden. Let’s dig into 7 labor-saving tasks to skip for a more eco-friendly garden!
1. Leave the Leaves
Utilize the valuable resource of autumn leaves for free, eco-friendly gardening.
It is ironic to watch people mistakenly throw pure garden gold (AKA leaf mulch) to the curbside for yard waste pickup, then go to the garden store and purchase compost, fertilizer, or mulch the following spring. But to be honest, I did the same thing before I knew about the power of leaves!
Deciduous leaves are the most valuable autumn resource. They are:
- Fertilizer: Fall leaves are rich in carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
- Mulch: Leaves are like a soil-protective blanket to insulate plant roots from harsh weather and conserve moisture in the soil.
- Weed Control: A carpet of leaves smoothers away weed competition, so you don’t have to do so much hard work.
- Microbe Food: Autumn leaves fuel the growth of beneficial microorganisms, boosting the soil microbiome for healthier plants,
As long as you don’t have a black walnut or eucalyptus, nearly any other deciduous landscape tree provides a rich (and FREE) source of organic material and mulch every year.
Leaves are a rich source of nutrients and minerals. Think of them as nature’s nutrient recyclers. Trees put up to 80% of their resources into leaves and drop them to survive winter. But nature is far too intelligent to let that richness go to waste. As leaves decompose at the tree’s base (with the help of soil microorganisms), all of the carbon, nitrogen, and other plant nutrients are recycled back into the root zone.
Simultaneously, leaves add organic matter to the soil, which boosts water retention, infiltration, and soil structure. A layer of leaves smothers away weed growth and prevents new weed seeds from germinating over the winter. Better yet, nature’s built-in mulch protects roots from harsh winter freezes by creating a blanket of insulation.
Best Autumn Leaves
The best autumn leaves are those low in lignin that decompose more quickly.
Lignin is an organic polymer incorporated into the cell walls of plants, making them woody or more rigid. Different trees have varying levels of lignin in their trunks, branches, and leaves.
Generally, plant materials with higher amounts of lignin take longer to break down. In contrast, plant parts with less lignin can decompose more quickly in the garden. The best species for your garden are those with leaves low in lignin, including:
- Fruit trees (apple, cherry, peach, etc.)
Leaves to Avoid
Choose leaves from most residential landscape trees for mulch and compost.
Walnut and eucalyptus leaves are allelopathic, meaning they contain compounds that naturally suppress the growth and germination of other plants. There are a few other leaves to avoid for mulch and compost because their composition can be difficult to break down.
However, most residential landscape trees drop leaves that are nutrient-rich, quick to break down, and excellent for weed suppression. Make repurposing them part of your fall cleanup routine!
What to Do Instead
Leave fallen leaves in your garden to benefit your trees, but be cautious of diseased leaves.
Leave the leaves to do what they do best! Instead of meticulously raking and bagging up all the fallen leaves from your yard, consider leaving them to rot in place or simply relocating them to your garden beds.
When you let leaves stay at the base of your trees instead of removing them during fall cleanup, you help fuel the tree for another year of growth while reducing weed competition. If you don’t want leaves to kill the grass on your lawn, you can rake them up and use them in your vegetable beds instead.
Pro Tip: For the finest, most luscious mulch possible and the easiest transport, consider running a lawn mower over a layer of leaves to chip them up and gather them in the bag. Then, dump the mower’s bag of chipped leaves into your desired bed. The finer leaf mulch is great for veggies like greens and carrots or for use in vermicompost bins. However, the smaller leaves will break down more quickly in a regular compost pile, requiring a greater proportion of carbon.
The only thing to beware of is plant disease. Never leave diseased leaves on the ground! This could cause more disease problems next year because pathogens tend to overwinter on the fallen foliage. If you suspect your tree has a disease, remove the leaves and throw them in the trash (don’t compost them).
2. No Need to Rototill or Leave Bare Soil Exposed
Avoid tilling and leaving bare soil in your garden because this makes it vulnerable to erosion.
Many gardeners work intensively to weed and till their garden beds during fall cleanup, leaving a barren bed ready to plant in the spring. While this may seem like a nice pre-preparatory step for a clean seed bed, it can do a lot more harm than good. Rototilling harms soil structure and exposes your garden to compaction, weed overgrowth, and imbalanced soil microorganisms.
You wouldn’t want to be caught in a winter storm naked with no protection! Naked soil is the same way. Bare dirt is especially vulnerable to erosion from wind, rain, and snow. Exposure can cause you to lose inches of valuable topsoil. Moreover, nutrients can easily leach out of the soil during excessively wet winters.
There is a reason you rarely see bare soil out in wild ecosystems. Nature uses weedy plants, leaves, and debris to cover her fragile skin.
Rather than wrangling a noisy, aggressive rototiller around, consider letting your soil do its natural work while hibernating under some sort of protective layer.
What to Do Instead
Consider no-till gardening for healthier soil and easier maintenance.
Always keep your garden beds covered, especially during fall and winter. Instead of stripping all plant material from the surface or rigorously tilling the soil, you can use one or more of the following strategies to protect naked soil:
- Cover Crops: Oats, winter rye, and vetch are nutrient-accumulating plants that protect and nourish garden soil through the winter. Fall seeding encourages a strong stand.
- Tarping: For the lazy gardener, simply toss a tarp over your beds and secure it with sandbags or bricks to prevent it from blowing away. The tarp will smother weeds by preventing sunlight from reaching them. Simultaneously, it will protect the bare soil from UV rays and help the bed warm up faster in the spring.
- Mulching: Take those leaves from step 1 or your leftover straw bales (un-sprayed and seed-free) from Halloween, and spread them over your beds. Mulch is a tremendous overwintering resource to add organic matter to the soil and protect it from winter storms.
- Plant Winter Crops: Active growing roots are always a good thing for nurturing soil! In mild climates, you can overwinter crops like cabbage, leeks, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, and spinach. They will anchor the soil in place and offer far more benefits than barren dirt.
If you want to put the rototiller away for good, consider switching to no-till gardening methods. No-till builds healthier soil, yields more crops, is better for the environment, and requires far less back-breaking work.
3. Avoid Fall Pruning
Avoid extensive fall pruning to prevent weakening and stressing your plants.
Fall pruning is a risky endeavor because it can severely weaken and stress your plants. When you prune, it can stimulate new growth. This often signals to the plant that it’s time to produce more leaves and stems rather than channel its energy into preparing for dormancy.
As a result, they can become more vulnerable to frost damage. The exposed fresh wounds are also more susceptible to diseases and pathogens that are most active in cool, wet weather.
The only fall pruning I recommend is removing damaged, diseased, or dying branches. You don’t want to leave any diseased plant material in the garden over winter. It’s also helpful to remove any tree or shrub branches that might be dangerous in a winter storm or could break under the weight of snow.
What to Do Instead
Delay fall pruning to allow plants to naturally enter dormancy and conserve resources.
When you avoid fall pruning, it allows your plants to naturally enter their dormant phase and conserve their valuable resources for the following season. Most pruning is best delayed until late winter or early spring when your plants are still dormant. Before they start budding or blooming, you can cut off larger portions of stems and foliage to shape the plant, encourage airflow, and promote more blooms.
Delaying pruning is especially important for fruit trees and woody shrubs. Some spring bloomers even set their flower buds in the fall, which means that fall pruning could significantly reduce their flower set the following spring. However, pruning schedules are highly species-dependent, so always research your specific tree, shrub, or herbaceous perennial before making a pruning decision.
Caveat for Herbaceous Perennials
Consider fall pruning for some herbaceous plants, but avoid it for some if they have drying flowers or seed heads.
The only caveat I’d mention is for some herbaceous perennials. The leftover foliage can be susceptible to powdery mildew when left in place. If the plant has already died back to the ground, it helps to cut back the dead foliage several weeks before your last frost and leave 4-6 inches of above-ground stems to protect the central crowns.
Examples of herbaceous perennials that benefit from fall pruning include:
- Bee balm (Monarda)
- Some ornamental grasses
If your perennials still have drying flowers or seed heads, don’t prune just yet…
4. Let the Flower Seed Heads Stay
Leave some withered flowers and seed heads over winter for ecological benefits.
We are often instructed to rigorously deadhead spent flowers to maintain a manicured garden appearance. However, some withered flowers and seed heads are best left over the winter for ecological benefits.
Seed heads are a valuable source of food for birds and other wildlife. Vibrant goldfinches, blue jays, and cardinals are a delightful sight to see on a gray winter day, and they will be very grateful to munch on dried flower seeds. Sometimes, urban or suburban birds don’t have many other resources to feed on during the coldest months.
Better yet, some dried seed heads like poppies, black-eyed Susans, and coneflowers (Echinacea) have attractive dried seed heads that add nice textural interest to a winter garden.
What to Do Instead
Preserve ornamental seed heads for both birds and garden aesthetics.
Let the seedheads stand! Put your pruners away and save the flower seeds as food for hungry, overwintering birds and critters. Most of the time, their feeding prevents plants from excessively self-sowing or spreading too far.
The best ornamental seed heads to leave behind for birds and aesthetics include:
- Sunflowers: Native sunflowers produce nutrient-rich seeds and are favored by some endangered birds.
- Coneflowers: The aesthetic pyramid-shaped seedheads of coneflowers magnetize blue jays, cardinals, and quail.
- Black-Eyed Susans: These attractive cone-shaped seed heads add a nice textural element that sparrows, finches, and small birds enjoy.
- Asters: The tiny seeds of asters attract chickadees and finches.
- Zinnias: Vibrant cardinals and goldfinches add color to a winter garden while they perch on zinnia’s sturdy stems and feed on the seeds.
- Columbines: If you love songbirds, leave these subdued seed pods or collect them for replanting.
- Sedums: Sparrows, finches, and grosbeaks love the seeds from upright sedums like ‘Autumn Joy.’
- Goldenrod: This native plant resource keeps its fluffy seed heads throughout the winter.
- Milkweed: This is a vital resource for monarch butterflies, so it’s nice to let it reseed in the garden each spring. The seedpods are popular amongst finches and sparrows.
5. Avoid Over-Mulching
Avoid excessive mulching because it can smother your plant roots.
Spreading mulch can be a lot of work, and often, we spread mulch more deeply than necessary. Don’t get me wrong. Fall mulching is a crucial step for feeding and protecting your soil before winter. However, excessive mulch can create a dense, thick layer that restricts airflow to perennial plant roots, stems, or trunks.
Super deep mulch can also suffocate soil organisms, restricting the airflow needed to survive. While mulch is incredibly beneficial, you can always have too much of a good thing! Layers of mulch deeper than 5-6” may do more harm than good, causing root rot or other diseases. If you press your mulch too close against the stems or trunks of your perennial plants, it can create a habitat for fungal infections or pest infestations like slugs to take hold.
In compacted or heavy clay soil in regions with very wet winters, over-mulching can be even more problematic. While mulch is intended to help retain soil moisture, too much can trap excess water around your plants through the winter. The result is waterlogged soil and, again, more susceptibility to stem rot or root rot.
The final issue with over-mulching has to do with temperature. We love leaves, straw, and bark for their ability to insulate soil from extreme temperatures. However, excessive mulch could create an overly warm root zone for fall plants, confusing them into thinking the weather is still favorable. Deep layers of mulch early in the autumn may prevent your plants from properly entering dormancy, making them more vulnerable to cold damage.
In the spring, the opposite problem can happen. Thick layers of mulch, particularly straw, can prevent spring soil from adequately warming. The cool, damp environment delays thawing and poses more risk for transplant shock into cold soil.
What to Do Instead
Ensure mulch permits airflow in waterlogged soil.
Apply mulch to a maximum depth of 2-4” and always leave several inches of space between mulch and the base of your plants. Whether you are spreading straw, leaves, bark, or pine needles, remember that thicker layers are not necessarily better.
If your soil is compacted or waterlogged, ensure that your mulch allows for plenty of airflow. If you live in an area that receives excessive rainfall, consider laying a tarp over your mulch for a month or so to prevent your most valuable garden soil from becoming waterlogged.
6. Don’t Clear All the Sticks and Plant Debris
Allow plant debris to foster a mini-forest ecosystem supporting biodiversity in your garden.
Clearing all of the plant debris from your garden during fall cleanup seems like a logical thing to do, but it takes a lot of work. Moreover, it goes against the natural flow of an ecosystem. Rather than treating your yard like an industrial-scale factory with pristinely clean rows, think of it like its own mini-forest or grassland. You don’t need to pick up every spare stem and sweep every aisle clean! Save yourself time and effort and boost biodiversity at the same time!
Decaying plant material provides a vital habitat for critters of all kinds that can offer you many important services like pest control and pollination. Plus, creatures make the garden a fun, beautiful, and interactive safe haven of natural wonders! When you leave behind plant debris, you contribute to a balanced and resilient ecosystem!
Sticks, plant debris, and logs provide habitat and shelter for important wildlife, including:
- Beneficial insects like ladybugs, which prey on aphids
- Predatory ground beetles
- Spiders (many are apex predators of garden pests!)
- Amphibians (many are going extinct, so they need some extra love)
- Small mammals (while you may want to keep the rodents and voles away, the chipmunks, squirrels, opossums, and foxes could all play an important role in your garden ecosystem.)
- Ground-nesting beneficial birds (free pest control, pollination, and beauty!)
- Pollinators like ground-nesting bees
What to Do Instead
Embrace a natural garden look by avoiding excessive cleanup to support nutrient cycling.
Avoid excessive fall cleanup or polishing. It’s normal for a garden to have spare leaves, sticks, and debris. Don’t worry. Your garden doesn’t need to look like a cluttered mess. A natural aesthetic can still be tidy. For example, designating a pile of sticks or firewood logs can look nice while providing a habitat for overwintering beneficial insects.
Diseased plant material and crop leftovers are the only debris I recommend consistently removing. Tomato and squash foliage are prone to powdery mildew and blights, so I always export them from the garden. Otherwise, most leaves, flowers, shrubs, sticks, and wilted greens are perfectly fine to keep in place. They support nutrient cycling and add natural beauty to your garden.
7. Avoid Yanking Up Roots
Use loppers or pruners to cut at the base of annual vegetable crops, leaving their roots in the soil.
Pulling up crop roots can be a lot of work! Why not just chop your plants at the base and leave the roots in the soil? Sharp loppers or pruners are perfect tools for crops with thick stems like kale, cabbage, or chard. For tender greens and low-growing crops, you can use a mower or hoe to chop up above-ground residues.
What to Do Instead
Retain roots for no-till benefits, but remove diseased plants to prevent pathogen spread in the garden.
Leaving intact roots during fall cleanup is a key strategy for no-till growers. The roots can decompose in place, creating new channels for oxygen and water to flow through the soil. Moreover, leaving roots intact won’t disturb the fragile underground ecosystems of beneficial microorganisms. These friendly microbes will break down old roots into organic matter and nutrients to nourish future crops.
The only caveat is, if you suspect your plants are diseased or rotten in the root zone, you should definitely pull them up! You don’t want to leave any infected plant material in the garden because it can serve as a safe haven for pathogens that may spread to other plants. Gardeners with perennial weed problems should also pull those weeds up from the roots.
Natural beauty and ecosystem support are the underlying themes of labor-reducing fall cleanup tasks. We can still enjoy beautiful landscapes without perfectly manicuring them to unnatural standards.
The key here is to balance disease control and sanitation with ecological services. When we let the leaves, seedheads, sticks, and roots stay in place, we support the soil and local wildlife, nurturing greater biodiversity and resilience for seasons to come.