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Fall Garden Cleanup

By mid-fall, garden beds need to be cleaned and last season’s annuals cut back.

Putting your garden to bed will result in a prettier, healthier garden from fall to spring. It’s essential to know what areas to clean, what to prune, what to leave undisturbed, and what to protect. Simply taking a leaf blower to your beds and landscape is a start, but there’s more to the process if you want to do it right.

Clean Beds

A waning perennial garden before the first frost.

When cleaning your garden beds, consider bed appearance as well as plant appearance and health. This means determining what should be cut back and cleaned and what should be left alone until spring.

Begin by cleaning out loose-leaf material by hand or blower with a focus on the most visually conspicuous areas. Smart gardeners are wise to leave some leaf litter in beds to provide added winter protection for more tender plants and help support overwintering pollinators. (Some species of overwintering native bees and butterflies use undisturbed leaf litter as essential winter habitat. Click here to learn more.) After clearing away unwanted leaves, give your fading garden plants needed attention.

Dead or dying annuals are the first thing to cut back or pull. If some have mature seed heads, consider scattering their seeds in hopes of getting a few extra seedlings in spring. Once annuals are removed and beds smoothed, start work on your perennials and shrubs.

Many perennials look great over winter and their crowns are protected by leaving the top growth intact. Leave all healthy evergreen perennials, such as lavender and sage, alone. Most ornamental grasses, coneflowers, asters, and black-eyed-Susans can also remain up until late winter. Some of these perennials, such as grasses, coneflowers, and asters, produce seed heads that naturally feed overwintering songbirds. Hardy perennials that die to the ground, such as daylilies, hardy geraniums, hostas, Shasta daisies, and salvias should be cut all the way back to keep gardens looking tidy.

Edge and Cover Beds

Edge and provide some cover while leaving attractive perennials up for winter.

After cleaning beds, cut fresh bed edges (Click here for a how-to video about edging.), and apply mulch. Lots of mulches will work, but dark, earthy leaf mulch is landscape gold. Not only does it look good, but it breaks down quickly to naturally feed soil, and it is easy to create from yard leaves. [Click here to learn how to turn your fall leaves into mulch.] Screened, partially composted bark mulch is another good option for broadcast mulching. For small garden spaces, Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost can be applied as a high-quality, fortifying mulch.

When mulching, work around perennials and shrubs. Many plants will die or perform poorly if their crowns and trunks are thickly layered with mulch. Succulents, alpines, rock garden plants, hosta, and heuchera should never have heavy mulch applied on or around their crowns.

Fall Pruning

Use clean shears and wear gloves when pruning in autumn

In fall, start by cutting back any dead, unhealthy, or crossing branches from trees and small shrubs. When pruning out dead, diseased, or infested wood, prune just below the point where growth is still fresh and healthy. If you think that a plant you are pruning is diseased, be sure to clean your pruning shears in a 10% bleach solution before pruning another plant. If additional pruning of flowering trees and shrubs is needed to shape the plants, first determine whether your shrubs bloom on old or new wood. It is okay to prune new-wood bloomers in fall but not old-wood bloomers.

French lilacs (Syringa vulgaris), azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.), forsythia, most viburnum, serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), and some hydrangeas, such as oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), all bloom on old wood—meaning they set their flower buds for the next year shortly after they bloom. These plants should never be pruned in fall unless you want to cut off next year’s flowers. Old- or second-year wood bloomers are best pruned right after they flower. Butterflybush (Buddleja davidii), crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), and some hydrangeas, such as wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), bloom on new wood, so fall pruning is an option.

Pruning techniques vary from plant to plant. As a general rule, shrubs that bloom on new wood are forgiving and can be hard pruned, or cut back nearly to the ground. In fact, hard pruning is recommended for more aggressive shrubs, like Buddleja.

Toss it or Compost It?

Bed cleaning creates lots of waste. Some of the waste is perfect for composting and some is best discarded. Loose leaf matter makes great compost. Fall grass clippings and leftover edging pieces can also be thrown into the compost heap. Old perennial and annual waste can also be composted, if it appears to be clean and disease free. Healthy woody branches can also be chipped and added to the bin. Any material thought to have pests or disease should be thrown away. This is especially the case for vegetable waste, such as last-season’s tomatoes, which commonly develop early and late blights. Rose clippings should also be kept far away from the bin because of the many diseases they can harbor. [Click here to learn more about rose diseases and pests.]

Clean, coiffed beds with crisp edges look great and will make spring prep a breeze. They will also make it easier to plan and implement fall bulb plantings and decorate for the winter holidays.

Saccharum ravennae JaKMPM
Grasses, such as this Ravennagrass (Saccharum ravennae) can be left up into winter.

About Jessie Keith


Plants are the lens Jessie views the world through because they’re all-sustaining. (“They feed, clothe, house and heal us. They produce the air we breathe and even make us smell pretty.”) She’s a garden writer and photographer with degrees in both horticulture and plant biology from Purdue and Michigan State Universities. Her degrees were bolstered by internships at Longwood Gardens and the American Horticultural Society. She has since worked for many horticultural institutions and companies and now manages communications for Sun Gro Horticulture, the parent company of Black Gold. Her joy is sharing all things green and lovely with her two daughters.

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