Fall Clean Up for Lazy Gardeners

I refuse to be a slave to my garden, which is why I designed it to be low maintenance; employing a variety of strategies to select plants that were both reliably easy care and suited to the space I had planned for them.

Yet, there's no denying that even for me, fall is a busy time in the garden. Leaves need raking, perennials need to be cut back, old vegetables need to be removed and composted – all while the days are getting shorter, colder, and in the case of Seattle, significantly wetter. The days of bikini-gardening are now a distant memory!

To make the clean up of our 5 acres manageable I've learned a few tricks to help me prioritize the tasks and get everything done before winter hits hard. So whether you've got a full day or just an hour here's some ideas on how to  use your time efficiently. I included some of these in my latest newsletter – this is an expanded version for you to easily refer back to as needed.

Use bird netting in targeted areas to make leaf removal easier.

Bird netting over this low growing snowberry will save me hours of time trying to extricate the fallen katsura leaves from between its woody branches

Our garden paths is composed of cedar chips – attractive but not easy to rake! Yet the borders include gorgeous deciduous trees underplanted with fine and mid-textured shrubs that quickly become engulfed by falling leaves. By throwing bird netting over the shrubs and pathway, I can quickly roll it up when the leaves have fallen, toss the netting into the wheelbarrow, and shake it out in an area where I am happy for the leaves to slowly decompose. Birds don't seem to get tangled in it since there is nothing under the netting to entice them (such as my netted raspberries and blueberries), and there really isn't any space between the netting and the shrub or path. Their tiny feet don't seem to get caught – maybe because the netting is quickly covered in a layer of leaves.

You might also try this over ponds if you can anchor the edges of the netting with heavy rocks. We had a pond in our last garden and it was no fun dredging the bottom in spring or using a fishing net to try and scoop them out before they sank in fall.

Why not  leave the fallen leaves on the ground?

Osmanthus 'Goshiki' is a wonderful evergreen shrub but it will suffer if I allow leaves to remain on it for an extended period of time. Much better to shake or rake then off carefully

Because it's not that simple. A heavy wet blanket of soggy leaves becomes a slug-attracting, vole-hiding blanket that also suffocates any evergreens such as hellebores, dwarf conifers, groundcovers, or euphorbias that may be underneath. Fine if you have lots of open ground between trees – not so practical in a typical layered garden. A compromise is to rake them into a nearby compost pile for a year or so before adding back the decomposed foliage as mulch.

I have a short handled bamboo rake for gently pulling leaves off these shrubs and perennials. The blunt tines do less damage to delicate foliage than the pointed tines of a traditional rake.

Healthy soils grow healthy veggies

Tidy up now for healthy crops next year

Those fallen tomatoes, blackened basil plants, and mildewed-squash vines need to go! They will attract voraciously hungry slugs which will happily lay hundreds of eggs in your vegetable garden ready for future buffets. Fungal spores usually overwinter on the soil too, so get rid of anything before disease can spread.

Cutting back perennials

There is nothing attractive about these daylilies now – much better to whack them back and tidy up this spot so the fall color of the smoke bush can be enjoyed in a few weeks time (and yes the deer nibbled the smoke bush this year…)

I made a choice to reduce the number of perennials in this garden as a way to keep maintenance lower, but of course I still have some herbaceous ferns, a few special perennials that I can't do without, and large sweeps of black eyed Susan's among my many shrubs and trees. Since I have a large garden I usually choose to begin in the areas I visit less frequently and that are farthest away from the house – in my case, the woodland. (As the weather deteriorates I may only have an hour outside so working close to the house will use my time efficiently). Although the woodland is at its peak in spring and fall, the fading perennials don't add a lot to the scene, especially once they start to look ratty. So I start by cutting back ALL the perennials in this border that can't be seen from the house, even if they are not quite ready. The plants run to my schedule – not the other way around!

The second sweep is the highly visible front garden. The froth of Gaura is now past its best and the poor mailman has to fight through the billowing wands to reach the front door last week. It's always hard to end their months-long display and cut them back (just to half height though – Gaura needs some woody stems to protect the crowns from winter damage) but when it's tidy, the flowers swept off the path and the structure of bark and evergreens revealed once again it looks so much better.

Perennials such as coneflowers and black eyed Susan's that provide winter food for the birds can get left for several months yet.

If you have a smaller garden, I suggest you start tidying the area that YOU see most often – perhaps the view from your living room, office or kitchen. The neighbors can wait! Don't feel pressured to have the front garden take priority. It's your time and your garden –  enjoy both.

Making the most of your time

Simple chicken wire cages discreetly tucked out of view are handy for the woodland

It really is surprising what you can get done in even half an hour. Here are a few tips to help you be efficient.

  1. Keep two buckets close to the back door – one with your basic tools and gloves, the other empty for collecting debris. If you've only got a few minutes you can quickly cut back a few things or pull some weeds, fill the bucket, add the contents to the compost pile or yard waste bin and you'll be back inside before the next shower starts. On days when you've more time you can go to the garden shed (or the barn in my case) and get out the wheelbarrow, rakes, and other 'big job' tools.
  2. Focus on one area at a time. Its far more satisfying to see one completely tidy area than to do little bits here and there which somehow rarely look any different.
  3. In larger gardens, reduce the trips to/from a single compost pile. Consider areas on the property perimeter, close to where you are working,  where you can simply dump clippings and allow them to decompose and be swallowed by the undergrowth out of sight of the main house.
  4. if you have an area with a lot of deciduous trees, can you tuck a chicken wire cage out of sight but near those trees so you can rake the leaves into them rather than wheeling them across the garden to a designated compost bin?
  5. A child-size rake is great for pulling debris from under large shrubs and roses. My winter daphne are now almost 6 feet in diameter and tend to drop their winter damaged leaves in a great mushy heap, hidden from view by the mounding habit. Knowing that they will attract slugs and that their waxy leaves will take a long time to decompose, I use a small rake to reach into the center and pull them out. Much better than lying on my stomach and stretching my arm into the unknown!
  6. Take you cell phone into the garden with you. This is always wise in case of an accident so you can call for help, but it's also the opportunity to capture special moments – an eagle wheeling overhead, the first woolly caterpillar slinking across the path, cedar waxwings feasting on honeysuckle berries, the late afternoon sunlight on the bark of a tree or a patchwork of jewel-toned leaves.  Because time spent in the garden should not be just about work, but about joy. Celebrate each tiny moment and the weeding won't seem like quite such a chore.

Pathway covered in leaves from red maple in October

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  1. Yvonne Whitney on September 29, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    Thank you Karen, I’m going to try the idea of bird netting under my apples trees before the leaves fall.

    • Karen Chapman on October 17, 2020 at 10:17 am

      Hope it helps!

  2. Tina Gruendike on October 18, 2020 at 11:23 pm

    Thank you for the advice. It should benefit many gardeners here in the NW.

    • Karen Chapman on October 19, 2020 at 8:01 am

      Thanks Tina – glad you enjoyed the post