Fall Cleanup in the Garden

Phillip Peters
Adams County Master Gardener

Once again we come to that time of year when we have to say good-bye to the beauties of this year's garden and get ready to re-create again next year. Fall cleanup is best done in three stages: evaluate the year's successes & failures, physically clean up the garden plots, and plan for next year. Notice that two-thirds of our work is more cerebral than physical and results from close observation of what we see in the garden. Only one third of the work is physical - raking leaves, removing dead plants, mulching, etc.

The First Step should be a relaxing, but critical, walk through our property, carefully observing the various plants and how they fared this summer. Most of the rain has come in quick bursts that didn't really soak the soil. Unless we watered regularly, our plants have been stressed by hot, dry days. Keep an eye out for those plants that performed best.

It is particularly important to evaluate the various annuals that we use for extended seasonal color. Some probably performed beautifully; others, less so, or, disappointingly. Making careful notes of the successes and failures will help us in Step Three where we will decide what to plant next year. Your garden notes may be mental ones or written. I carry a clipboard around with me, making quick maps of the plantings in a given garden and then referencing it with notes on the performance of each plant, or just notes about unusual situations.

This is also the time to take a good close look at our perennials, trees and shrubs. How did they fare? Did they grow evenly? Are they stressed? Look for signs of insect damage or disease in the leaves and branches. Make sure there are no sunken areas (cankers) or bleeding scars and broken branches. Remove any plants or parts of plants that show damage. Dispose of the affected material separately. Do not put it in with your compost or allow it to remain in the garden.

This leads us to Step Two: cleanup and maintenance. This is the physical part and the one that taxes our muscle power. Take the advice of the garden book writers and stretch the muscles before indulging in unaccustomed physical activity. And, don't overdo it. When you get tired, rest. The work will still be there tomorrow.

First, we need to remove all the dead annuals and fallen flower heads, dead branches, garden debris and dead leaves. Prune plants that need it in the fall. Clean up thoroughly, as dead material will only harbor disease and pests if left in the garden over the winter.

If you see signs of insect pests, i.e., bagworms, remove them now. For bagworms, don't just pull the bag off the branch. Take a sharp knife or razor blade and cut through the silken strands that are wrapped around the branch. Left on they will strangle the branch as it grows. Tear open or remove fall webworm nests. Don't kill the spiders; they are on your side.

Fall cleanup is not only about removing. It also involves planting. Now is the time to plant bulbs, perennials and shrubs so their roots have a chance to establish before winter.

Speaking of planting, let's not overlook your lawn. This is the time to dethatch it and fill in the spots where the grass didn't make it. A good quality seed, bred for the wear it will get, is well worth the expense.

After the ground freezes is the time to put down a new covering of mulch. It not only makes the garden look nicer, but it will help maintain an even moisture and temperature level in the soil. Two or three inches are all you need. Remember to make a donut around the crowns of perennials and trunks of shrubs and trees. If the mulch comes all the way up around the plant, moisture will accumulate around the bark and soften it. In addition, disease, insects and small mammals like mice & voles will be able to get into the trunk and harm the plant.

With the physical part of our fall cleanup and planting behind us, we can move on to Step Three. Relying on the observations we have made as we walked around the property and cleaned up the gardens, we can now set up a strategy for next year's garden. Write down what worked and what didn't for each section of the garden. Make notes about what you want to improve. Look at each garden area and imagine what shapes, colors and textures you want in that area. Jot these ideas down on a rough garden sketch of the plot.

Now we can make the best use of all those garden catalogs that will flood our mailboxes. Rather than just buying on impulse we will be able to funnel our resources into just the right plants. And next year's garden will be even more spectacular than this year's!

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