A Smarter Fall Cleanup
“We now know that an overly aggressive approach to cleaning up in autumn can damage the environment. So what’s a responsible gardener to do?
When we mow over, shred or vacuum up leaves, or rake them away from the tree they fell from, we diminish the potential good that the leaves and their various inhabitants — all essential players in the food web — can do.” By Margaret Roach, New York Time, Sept 30, 2020 – Read her full story, Smart Fall Cleanup
Winding Down the Vegetable Garden. Clean up your garden as each vegetable passes. Healthy but past peak lettuce and other leaf crops can be dug into the soil in place or composted. But remove any plants that have developed seeds (most are hybrids and will not seed true), any that have had disease problems, or that carry unwanted insect visitors. When cleaning up, pick up all the dropped tomatoes (they carry disease), every last bit of the squash vines and corn stalks (they harbor insect eggs) and every potato in the ground (they carry disease into next year). Consider sowing a cover crop that will hold the soil and add organic matter to the soil. To cut down on your work, choose one such as oats or annual rye that will die during the winter so you plant through the remains in the spring.
Clean up in the perennial garden. For decades, we were all told to cut down our perennials at this time of year. That advice now comes with an asterisk. Leave up those perennials that have flower stalks with seed heads for the birds. Migrating birds appreciate the food. And a ready supply of seeds is vital for those species that over-winter in New England. Further, many native bees are solitary (no hive) and winter over in the hollow stems of flowers. You should still clean up any plant with disease, trim back flowering shrubs, cut back rambunctious vines, and cut down perennials that do not have seed heads (hosta is a prime example). But having less work to do while doing good is a great feeling.
Leaves are gold, even if they are red. Save yourself work, improve the soil under your lawn and make the local town dump (or ‘transfer station’) happy. Don’t rake your leaves; mow them into your lawn. All the nutrients to grow those leaves came out of the soil under your lawn and around your property. If you mow over them, you will cut the lawn and chop up the leaves. You may still see them on the ground in the fall. But before spring arrives they will have broken down and become part of the soil—with all the nutrients that the lawn and trees need. Collect leaves when clearing off patios and driveways. Chop them up as well and put them around shrubs or over flower beds to add food to their soil too. If you run out of uses, put chopped leaves into a compost pile as a resource for next spring. Leaves are too valuable to throw away.
Bulbs. Your tulips should be in the ground now, and small bulbs such as crocus, snowdrops, and grape hyacinth should be going into the ground by mid-October. Hold off planting daffodils until later in the month. To keep squirrels and other varmints from digging up and eating your bulbs, dust them with lime as you put them into the ground, and then add a layer of lime on top of the planted area. The lime interferes with smelling the bulbs, and is an important in ‘sweetening’ the soil for these plants that come from a part of the world with much less acidic soil.
Are your houseplants ready for winter? All houseplants that summered outside should have been cleaned up and brought in during September. Cool nights are a shock to these tropicals that we keep in our homes. Plants should be repotted if they’ve outgrown their pots and checked carefully for any bugs or diseases they have picked up before being brought indoors where problems will spread quickly.
Bring in herbs now. Don’t let a frosty night claim all your herbs. Harvest herbs first thing in the morning, before essential oils evaporate, then dry them out of sunlight. Place dried leaves (or seeds) in air tight containers for winter use.
Compost, but not everything. The plants you are cutting back, the weeds you are pulling may or may not be right for the compost. Keep seeds out of home compost or you will find them everywhere next year. Similarly, diseased or bug-riddled plant need to be bagged for the trash. Only large, professionally managed compost piles get hot enough to kill unwanted pests.
Make notes on your successes and failures. What was that plant we all loved in August? Which plants didn’t live up to the hype—or just didn’t like your garden? Dreaming through catalogs during the winter is not the best time to try to remember what you wanted to change. If you didn’t keep a garden journal through the spring and summer, try to fill in the best and worst now.
Don’t rake, mow!
Mowing with a mulching mower and leaving the clippings behind now is one of the best things you can do for your yard. You can eliminate a lawn fertilization by leaving clippings on the lawn all year (no they do not cause thatch). And you can fertilize the trees and shrubs that are part of the landscape by putting the nutrients from the leaves that fall right back in the soil. If you mow them instead of raking them, you keep most of what the trees need right in the soil. The small chips of leaf will decompose into the lawn over the winter. You’ll have saved yourself time and made lawn richer.
Last call for houseplants.
It is getting chilly outside and days are less that twelve hours. That’s a recipe for a very unhappy houseplant if you’ve allowed them to stay outdoors into October. Clean them up, repot them (if they have outgrown their old container over the summer), and check for any uninvited occupants. It is also a good time to prune them back into shape if they have been growing too vigorously, or to divide them and share with friends. Remember houseplants need to adjust to the lower light and dryer conditions of your home. While they need water, be careful not to overwater them, and hold off on fertilizer until they no longer are dropping leaves.
What you can do for your lawn now.
If you haven’t had a soil test in the last two years, get one done now. You can download an order form from the UMass Soil Lab here. In the spring there can be a long wait for results, but now the lab gets sent fewer tests and you have more time to follow the recommendations. The one number I always look for in the autumn is the pH of the soil (how acidic it is). In New England anything lower than about 5.5 isn’t good. Put lime down now and it will take effect by next spring when everything starts growing again.
Clean up the vegetable garden.
Once your final harvest is complete don’t leave fallen fruit, leaves or stalks in the garden as they can allow pests and disease to over-winter in your garden. Plants that had disease or insect problems can be a source of re-infection in the following year. Bag them and send them to the dump — never compost diseased material.
Clean up gardens.
Most garden plants look pretty tired as we enter October. Cut down any that are unattractive or diseased. Monarda (bee balm) and phlox are highly susceptible to mildew (even this year) and look terrible by now. Send them to the dump, not to the compost pile.
Save something for the birds.
When you clean up your flower beds, leave some of the seed heads to feed the birds. Sunflowers are obvious choices, but plants such as rudbeckia (black eyed susans) and coneflower (echinacea) will attract birds to your yard. Keep water available for the birds all winter if possible. They need it as much as they need food throughout the winter.
Spring bulbs now!
If you haven’t purchased your bulbs yet, block off an evening with those catalogs and fill out the online form, or else get to gardens centers while the selection is still good and supply plentiful. You can plant tulips now (provided you don’t have deer – if you do, skip tulips entirely), and daffodils at the end of the month when the soil is cooler. If you have a problem with deer or rabbits eating your bulbs, keep in mind that hyacinths, like daffodils, have an irritating sap that convinces most browsers that one bite is more than enough. Plant small bulbs – chinodoxia, crocus, grape hyacinths and others – in clusters along sidewalks or driveways where they can appreciated up close. Some of the small bulbs such as galanthus (snowdrops) and scilla (squill) will naturalize in grassy areas providing a colorful early spring. Larger bulbs make a wonderful start to many beds where they bloom before the perennial flowers come up and deciduous shrubs leaf out. Their yellowing foliage will later be hidden under the new foliage of the perennials.
Take advantage of sales at local nurseries to buy shrubs and trees.
Because of the continuing drought across New England, this has been a poor sales year for nurseries. If you have the means to water new trees, you’ll find them at steep discounts this month, even at better nurseries. Remember to loosen root balls, and plant in saucers not teacups, holes wider than deep to allow roots to quickly spread. Water frequently until the ground is frozen because the roots will keep growing after the leaves have dropped.
More October Tips (Some tips from: http://awaytogarden.com/)
• Water. The last few months have been very dry here. Be sure to water any new perennials and make sure broad leafed evergreens go into winter well hydrated.
• Leave especially ornamental or wildlife-friendly perennial plants standing. The birds will thank you.
• Remove sickly things first of all; destroy the debris by putting it in the trash, not the compost pile. This helps reduce diseases and pests from wintering over and causing problems next year.
• Rake leaves and then use them. A lawnmower run over a leaf pile will shred them prior to using then as mulch or worked into soil or added to compost. Cut off broken or dead branches now but leave the pruning of lavenders, half hardy herbs and roses until spring.
• Do not prune Azaleas, Rhododendrons and other spring flowering shrubs because they have already set their buds for next year’s blooms. If you do, you will sacrifice next spring flowers.
• Weed. Removing weeds before they go to seed can save lots of work next year when those weed seeds grow.
• Protect weather-vulnerable pots. Terra cotta and ceramic pots can freeze and crack if left out in the weather.
• Plant flowering bulbs and garlic bulbs in October. Since grape hyacinths how their foliage in the fall, consider adding a few of their bulbs to other bulb plantings to serve as markers. You will then know next fall where you planted bulbs this year.
• Time to bring houseplants back indoors. Wash with a stream of water and consider using an insecticide as directed before they are brought inside.