What to do with the garden this time of year? Flowers are spent, leaves are beginning to show their beautiful fall colors and beginning to fall, and many of us have had our first real frost. Fall clean-up can seem a daunting task if you are not sure what to cut back or best practices. If your garden is diverse, like mine, you may have a mixture of ornamental grasses, annual and perennial flowers, along with many trees and shrubs. Pruning and garden clean-up does not have to be such a worrisome task. Plants are very often forgiving, even if a minor mistake is made. Even the most experienced gardener can be surprised by the success or failing of plants in his or her garden.

Trees and Shrubs

The fiery colors on trees and shrubs are one of the wonders of fall! Changes are occurring so quickly this time of year. These leaves that are falling from your trees can become “black gold” for your garden. If the leaves did not suffer from any diseases, you can create leaf mold. In Britain, it is considered the “gardeners choice” for mulching the garden.  Leaf mold is a great source of nutrients for your lawn and garden. It offers the additional benefits of holding 50% more moisture in the soil, keeps roots cool in hot weather, and creates a wonderful habitat for beneficial soil organisms like bacteria and worms.

Leaf mold is nothing more than partially decomposed leaves. One way to create leaf mold is by chopping leaves with your mower or with a shredder and storing them in black plastic bags with breathing holes poked in the sides. This process will take about one year.

You can also chop them up with your mower and leave them on your lawn. As long as you can see the grass through the leaves, your lawn will not suffer.  Dry leaves can be collected and used as mulch for those plants that require extra protection through the winter.

Finally, it is not a good idea to prune any trees and shrubs until they are fully dormant. Pruning this time of year will create wounds that are very slow to heal and can cause diseases to develop. Pruning can continue until the end of the dormant season in March or April.


There are so many different perennials and each one may have special needs to keep it happy. Most perennials can be cut back in the fall, including ornamental grasses. Here are a few questions that may help you decide how to approach your perennial clean up. Do you want to feed birds? Is there wildlife that you are creating some habitat for? Are you looking for winter interest in your garden?

Ornamental grasses can be a wonderful source of winter interest in the bleak winter landscape. Grasses, along with evergreens, can offer structural elements to your garden when the snow begins to blanket the landscape. As the grasses are pushed down by the snow, they can provide natural cover from the blustery winds for overwintering birds.

If you are feeding birds, many perennials are a great source of nutritious food for birds. Plants like Coneflower (Echinacea), Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), Beebalm (Monarda), and Tickseed (Coreopsis). There is one draw-back to keeping these wonderful seeds in your garden. If these plants love your garden, you may receive a wealth of volunteer plants in the spring and summer. I have grown many of these plants in my yard for the dual purpose of feeding birds and for the beauty of the flowers. My resolution is to leave the seed heads on until I find there are fewer birds feeding on the seed heads. I then cut the plants back to reduce the numbers of new ones growing the following season. I look at all those new volunteers as weeds in my garden as they are plants I do not want.

Other perennials like Butterfly Weed, Coral Bells, Garden Mums, Butterfly Bush, and Lavender do not require pruning or clean up until the spring. Some of them may even appreciate a bit of protection from the winter by covering them lightly with leaf compost. Here are two web sites that can offer more complete information on fall care of perennials: http://gardening.about.com/od/maintenance/a/Spring_Pruning.htm http://gardening.about.com/od/maintenance/a/Fall_Pruning.htm


There are a few annuals that you may wish to overwinter in your house. Plants like Dahlias, Cannas, Gladiolas, and Calla Lilies are fairly easy to overwinter. Clean off the foliage as it dies back. Digs up the bulbs and knock off as much remaining soil as possible. Store them in a dark, cool corner of your basement in plastic grocery bags. Do not ties the bags shut to allow for air circulation and to keep the tubers from rotting.

Other annuals like impatiens, begonias, and fuschias can be dug up, potted, and brought inside for winter flowers. You may also want to take cuttings from your coleus, geraniums, and impatiens to root and transplant later into containers. By January you could have flowering plants to brighten your home again.

Some annual flowers that perform really well even after a couple of frosts are pansies, lobelia, snapdragons, petunias, dusty miller and allysum. These are great for the late season garden.

Lawn Care

You should have completed all of your lawn fertilization back in September. Research indicates that any fertilizer applied now is a waste because the grass does not take up the nutrients as efficiently. UW-Extension specialists recommend lawn fertilization applications occur around Memorial Day, Independence Day on July 4th, and Labor Day. These three applications and any grass left after mowing will give your lawn enough nitrogen to keep it healthy.

Broadleaf weeds in lawns such as dandelions, creeping Charlie, and clover can be killed by spot treating with a broadleaf weedkiller for lawns after the first light frost.

If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to call us or ask via this blog link.

Happy Gardening!