autumn leaves
Image by Sandy Repp

Autumn leaves

Fall Cleanup Q&A

By Pat Curran, Horticulture Educator,

Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension
(Published October 2010)

Question: Gardening keeps me so busy in spring! What can I do in fall that will save me time in spring?

Answer: I also prefer to get as much done in the fall as I can, because spring chores are often time-critical, especially in the vegetable garden in order to get a crop in our relatively short growing season. In the flower beds, pull all annuals after a hard freeze kills them. Cut back most perennials, except for those with basal rosettes of foliage, like coral bells (Heuchera), or those with semi-woody stems, like lavender, sage, or Russian sage. Cut all the green foliage off bearded iris to remove iris borer eggs. Leave the stems on hardy mums and Japanese painted fern, because it helps protect them over the winter. You can cut back Christmas fern and Lenten rose foliage in December and use them in holiday decorating.

In the vegetable garden, pull all the dead plants. If they were not diseased, they can go in the regular compost pile. Diseased plants should be segregated in some fashion: perhaps a designated compost pile that won't be used in the veggie garden in the future. If the soil isn't too wet, you can incorporate the old mulch from this growing season, with a spading fork or rototiller. However, if you have clay soil like most of us, it probably is too wet to do so now. I have had almost 7 inches of rain since Sept. 30 myself. Better to wait until spring, than to ruin the soil's tilth by compacting it when it is wet.

Be sure to protect the bark of the trunks of your young trees, especially fruit trees or their ornamental relatives like crabapples, from rodent, rabbit, and deer feeding damage. You can use either cages of hardware cloth or plastic spiral trunk protectors (the plastic spirals need to be taken off during the growing season). In addition, many young trees will require wire cages to prevent deer browsing on branches and buds. Young trees of all kinds with tall bare trunks may also be damaged by bucks rubbing the velvet off their antlers. If this has already occurred, cut off the shreds of damaged bark to make a clean-cut wound. Do not use pruning paint; just protect the trunk (as explained above) to prevent additional damage over the winter.

The most important chore of all, that will pay dividends for years to come, is to WEED! You will find weeds hiding under the skirts of your perennials, or next to your frost-killed veggies. Many of these may be "winter annuals," hardy weeds which live all winter and go to seed in spring, before you notice them or get to them. Pull them up now while they are small and save hours of weeding next spring and for years to come.

Last updated January 29, 2021