In the Garden November 2016

By Peg Keenleyside

It’s that time of year again: fall clean-up in the garden.

This is probably the most chore-like aspect of gardening (next to weeding) that you’ll encounter over the season. To get the work done, all you need is a to-do list and some division of labor. Herewith, a fall garden clean-up checklist:

1. Cleaning up garden beds

It used to be that fall clean-up meant cutting down perennials and shrubs and raking up every last bit of debris, filling countless large brown paper bags to be left for curbside pickup or hauled off to the Point Roberts Transfer Station.

Then along came Egan Davis, chief educator with the UBC Horticulture Training Program at the UBC Botanical Garden, to tell us some good news: it’s actually much healthier for the plants and soil to not clean up. “Fall clean-up is actually one of the most detrimental things you can do in your garden,” Davis said in a recent CBC interview, noting that raking the soil bare is a recipe for problems down the road: erosion and soil compaction from the winter rains, for example.

Davis suggests just letting perennials alone for the winter, only doing a cutback in early spring. “A trick that I like to do when you have garden detritus is, if it’s upright and standing through to March, take some hedge shears and, starting from the top of the plants, clip them into little pieces and just let them fall and lie where they are,” he advised.

The only plants that need to have debris material cleared away from their base in fall are roses.

Check one chore off the to-do list.

2. Raking leaves/creating compost

Raking leaves is a time-honored fall tradition for the whole family, right alongside cooking up a warm winter soup and pumpkin pie. In fact, I can remember pumpkin pie being offered as a reward for getting some leaf raking done. And it usually involves more brown bags being dragged to the curb.

The new view of what to do with your piles of leaves, happily, looks at using them either directly on beds as an overwinter mulch or – what I like to do – put them into garden-materials-only compost bin. The compost created from the leaves can then be used in the spring to spread around plants. For a good primer on how to turn leaves into compost visit:

3. Clean up the veggie garden

If you have a veggie garden or raised beds, you can do a fall tidy on the old plants (tomatoes in particular should not be left to overwinter), but leave the overwintering crops such as kale. You may not harvest anything more for your table, but the plants provide nutrients for overwintering birds and pollinators.

If I have leaf compost available I will give the veggie beds a good two inches of coverage, but I’ve been persuaded that tilling in the compost is just not necessary in the fall. It’s better to work the soil in the spring after it’s dried out a bit.

If you want to really boost the productivity of your soil come next season, scatter some cover crop seed such as winter peas over your beds. Peas fix nitrogen into the soil and in the spring you can simply till the low-growing pea plants right into the soil.

4. Empty pots and containers

Forget trying to save soil from your pots and containers for next year. The soil will be nutrient depleted by the end of the season and you might have some plant disease or pests that have been developing on your plants that have migrated into the potting soil.

If you just throw the whole thing in your compost, chances are you’ll be rotating a disease into your garden next season. Another tip: wash out your pots with water that has a bit of bleach in it to kill off any soil bacteria.

For perennials you have used in your containers, find a sheltered spot in the garden to overwinter them and then pot them out into new potting soil next spring. On the other hand, if you’re planting bulbs in a container now, you can always put the perennials on the top layer and the bulbs will push up through them in the spring.

5. Feed the lawn

Give your grass the nutrients it needs to survive the long, cold sleep of winter. Add a fall lawn fertilizer with high phosphorous content to encourage root growth.

6. Clean garden tools and the mower

They’re garden tools, right? Why clean them? Well, the Martha Stewart answer is that tools and mowers perform better if they’re cleaned and oiled. There’s also the consideration that plant-borne diseases and pests can be transferred from one plant to another by way of spores left on your pruners and trimmers. Not a good thing.

7. To prune or not to prune fruit trees

Last but not least here is the question of whether to prune fruit trees in the fall. Generally, the advice is not to prune until the early spring, before the flowering fruit tree buds. But it is good to get around and check for branches that may be splitting away from the trunk of a tree – these should come off and the open area sealed up with tree protector spray.

After it’s all done, treat yourself and the crew to a slice of pumpkin pie and a Washington apple or pear cider.

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