You may think you have to clean up all of the leaves during the fall - you don’t! Leave some behind for plant insulation and extra nutrition.
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Lots of gardening jobs can be done as summer transitions to fall, but a few items on the typical to-do list are things best done at other times… or skipped altogether. Here are four fall jobs you might think you ought to do that you can scratch off the list:
Raking all of the leaves
There’s no need to rake or blow every last leaf out of the yard or bag them for the landfill. In garden beds, leaves are superb (and free) winter root insulators that also add organic matter to the soil as they break down. Leave a couple of inches of them under trees, among shrubs, and over top of perennial flower beds for an added boost of natural nutrients.
In the lawn, run over light layers of leaves with your mower and let the fragments add nutrition to the soil as they decay. Cut often enough so heavy layers don’t build up that are too deep to mow.
Fall is the worst time to prune trees and shrubs. This is when woody plants are trying to go dormant. The last thing they need is to heal wounds and muster last-minute energy to replace the wood they just lost – wood that will be too tender to weather winter anyway in cold climates. As a general rule of thumb:
- Early-blooming flowering shrubs and trees are best pruned right after they flower next spring.
- Late-season bloomers can be pruned at the end of winter.
- Evergreens are best pruned at the end of winter or late spring through mid-summer, depending on the species.
- Shade trees and fruit trees can be pruned in late fall, but only after the leaves have dropped.
Vegetable gardeners have long been taught that the last thing to do each season is till the garden soil. However, tilling stirs up weed seeds, chops earthworms, and pulverizes the soil, making it more prone to the compacted conditions that tilling is supposed to help.
Tilling is useful for loosening the soil in a new bed and then working organic matter into it. But once the bed is prepared and improved, it’s better to just spread an inch or two of compost over the soil surface each fall and let the earthworms incorporate it.
Clearing the garden beds
Some gardeners practically sterilize their garden beds by cutting back and removing all browned-out perennial flowers and ornamental grasses as soon as fall frost ends the growing season. Many plants – especially borderline-hardy perennials – survive winter better when their browned-out leaves collapse and act as insulation for the plant crowns (where new growth emerges).
Plus, birds appreciate the winter food of seeds from coneflowers, black-eyed susans, and asters, and they can use the browned-out stems of ornamental grasses for nest-building in early spring. Better timing for your perennial-flower cleanup is the end of winter, right before new growth occurs.