Fall Garden Cleanup for a Smart Start (Includes Checklist)

Rake leaves in autumn

Though the gardening season may be winding down, there's still plenty to do, both to make things easier for you next year, and to help your garden be as healthy as possible. Fall is an excellent time for planting, prepping, and general cleanup -- but be careful! You don't want to make your garden too tidy; lots of beneficial insects and pollinators overwinter in leaf litter.

Fall Garden Cleanup printable

Fall Garden Cleanup for the Vegetable and Herb Garden

Fall cleanup in the vegetable garden is all about making sure to prevent any pest and disease issues for the following season, and to ensure that your garden is ready to plant next spring. This is probably the area of your landscape you'll want to clean up the most thoroughly, for exactly that reason. Here are some things you'll want to do for your veggie and herb garden cleanup.

Remove Spent or Dead Plants

It's best not to leave old tomato plants, pumpkin vines, or other vegetable plants in the garden, since they can harbor pests and diseases. Dispose of anything that showed signs of disease, and compost the rest.

Clean Up and Compost Fallen Fruit

Leaving fallen tomatoes or squashes in your garden means you are going to have dozens of them popping up next year and will spend a good amount of time weeding them out. Plus, there's nothing quite as unpleasant as reaching into a garden bed and ending up with a handful of rotten tomato. Clean out any fallen fruit and compost it.

Finish Harvesting and Drying Herbs

If you've kept your herbs deadheaded, you can still get another good harvest of sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and other herbs before it gets too cold. Cut some stalks, bundle them with twine, and hang them in a dry spot with good ventilation until they're fully dry.

Weed Thoroughly

The weeds you leave now will only mean you'll have more weed issues next year. Before putting the garden to bed for the winter, give all of your beds one last, thorough weeding. You'll thank yourself next spring and summer.

Apply Compost and Mulch

Leaving soil bare all winter long isn't great for it. Nutrients get leached more easily, and the soil tends to erode away more quickly. Instead, either plant a cover crop (such as vetch), or give your beds a nice topdressing of compost and mulch (shredded fall leaves work wonderfully for this!) It will provide additional nutrition to your soil and keep it healthier overall.

Make New Beds

The garden tends to slow down in the fall, and this is an excellent time to consider changes you'd like to make for next year, while this season is still fresh in your mind. Do you want to expand the garden? Making those new beds in the fall means that you can get planting that much sooner in spring, because you'll have done the work ahead of time, before the flurry of spring gardening activities makes you wonder when in the world you'll get it all done.

Fall Cleanup for Ornamental and Flower Gardens

While there are definitely some cleanup chores you'll want to do in any flower gardens or borders, this is one of those areas where you'll want to leave a few plants standing and not be too stringent about cleaning up leaf litter. Certain spent plants, such as coneflowers, both provide winter interest and food for birds during the winter, so you'll want to leave them standing.

Remove Diseased Foliage and Spent Plants

This is the time to pull out those old, spent annuals. If your plants had any sort of disease or fungal issue, dispose of the old foliage rather than composting it to ensure it doesn't spread next year.

Don't Be in a Hurry to Cut Down Perennials

Aside from providing your garden with some winter interest, perennials can provide habitat for wildlife, as well as food (in the form of seeds) for birds. A bonus to leaving the stems standing: you won't have to wonder next spring where everything was planted, and you'll know where you have room to tuck in a few new plants, before the new foliage is even up.

Leave the Leaves

It's such a temptation to rake all of the fall leaves out of garden beds, but there are so many reasons to leave them. Most importantly, they often provide overwintering habitat to pollinators, and if you rake the leaves up, those pollinators won't be around to help out in the garden next year. Plus, leaving the leaves allows them to break down in your garden beds a bit, providing additional nutrients, which means healthier soil for your plants.

Plant Shrubs, Trees, and Perennials

Fall is the perfect time to plant trees, shrubs, and perennial plants. The weather is cool and often a bit rainy, and the soil is still warm. These are ideal conditions for root growth, which is what you want when trying to get a new plant established in your garden.

Plant Spring and Summer Blooming Bulbs

This is also the time to plant all of those beautiful spring and summer blooming bulbs, which need the cold period provided by winter so that they can bloom next year.

Give Newly-Planted Plants Plenty of Mulch

A good three to four-inch layer of mulch (such as shredded leaves, pine straw, or bark mulch) around a new plant will prevent it from heaving out of the soil during the freeze-thaw cycles that often happen in fall and spring. They don't have strong roots yet to hold them in, so the mulch acts as a blanket that keeps the soil around them at a steadier temperature. Just be sure not to press the mulch right up against the trunk or stems, since this can lead to rot.

Remove Annuals From Containers

If you grew hanging baskets or pots with flowering annuals, this is the time to pull them out and compost them. While you're at it, this is a good time to give the containers a good cleaning and store them out of the weather. Next spring, you'll be ready to plant!

Weed and Mulch

Give the flower garden a good, thorough weeding so you can reduce the amount of weeding you'll have to do next spring. Apply a three-inch deep layer of mulch as well to make sure no more weed seeds germinate and to keep the soil protected over the winter.

Make New Beds so They're Ready to Plant in the Spring

Cool temperatures and the slower pace of fall gardening makes this an excellent time to make new beds or expand the ones you already have.

Fall Cleanup for the Lawn

Lawn mower in autumn park

The best way to help ensure that your lawn is as healthy and lush as possible next year is to put in a little effort and preparation this fall. None of these tasks are particularly time consuming, but they can make a big difference.

Rake Leaves or Use a Mulching Mower

Leaving fallen leaves on the grass can result in them matting and then suffocating the grass below, leading to yellowed or dead patches of lawn. Rake and compost them, or use a mulching mower, which will finely shred the leaves, which you can then leave right on your lawn to provide additional fertility.

Seed Thin or Bare Spots in the Lawn

Cooler, rainier fall weather is the perfect time to either overseed your lawn or seed any bare areas. You'll want to sow grass seed no later than 45 days before your first fall frost to give the new grass time to get established.

Make Sure to Mow the Lawn Before It Starts Snowing

If you leave your grass too long, and then it sits under snow all winter, it provides the perfect situation for what's known as snow mold, which is a not very attractive pink or white mold that appears on the lawn in spring. This usually happens when it snows before they ground has fully frozen, and if your grass is tall, that's the perfect environment to harbor the mold. Cut the grass to around two and a half to three inches tall before winter.

Fertilize or Topdress With Compost

For a lush green lawn next spring and summer, fall fertilizing is the way to go. Consider topdressing the entire lawn with compost and then raking it in with a steel garden rake. If you choose to use other fertilizers, be sure to read the directions on the package in terms of how much to apply and when.

Tidy, But Not Too Tidy

Doing a garden clean-up in the fall is an excellent way to reduce pest and disease issues, while also getting a jump on next year's garden. Make sure to leave some plants standing for winter interest and as wildlife food sources, and remember that next year's butterflies may very well be overwintering in leaf litter, so leave it where it is if at all possible.

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Fall Garden Cleanup for a Smart Start (Includes Checklist)