It used to be that the first day of fall was a day that I started looking around the garden seeing what parts needed to be cleaned first, and what areas needed to wait for the leaves to fall before I could get into them and do my whirling dervish moves.
Now I’m a lot less anxious to display my neat freak streak. Instead, I leave seeds for the birds, other plants for winter interest (I’m especially fond of the way my grasses look in the snow) and frankly I tire a little sooner each year now, so I take it a little easier.
If you still have the energy, any foliage that is yellowing and or brown on perennials is fine to cut down to the ground and toss it on the compost pile. Or it you are feeling very energetic, you can snip it into tiny pieces and leave it in the bed to break down like mulch. I am a little on the fence on this move. I mean part of me thinks it’s crazy to remove all the dying and dead foliage that nature creates to feed the soil, only to replace it with purchased mulch that is trying to serve the same purpose. On the other hand, a lot of the foliage I’m my garden has black and purple fungal spots on it, and that stuff I don’t want to leave in the garden so the spores can reinfect my plants next spring. Those leaves go in garbage bags and get carried off the property, along with strings of glechoma hederacea, commonly known as Creeping Charlie, a hideous weed that found it’s way into my compost pile a few years ago and didn’t get cooked, but instead got spread through all my garden beds.
That said, I’m not sure that a dead bed filled with chopped up bits of crocosmia that aren’t really going to get broken down by spring is the right look either. So last year I decided to do as little as possible and see how it all worked out. It was hard not having the tidied up cleanly raked beds that I was used to. Those clean beds made me feel that I was all ready for spring and raring to go, but instead I just left a lot of it in place and made sure when spring came that I checked under the winter matted down leaves for suffocating bulbs. And it sort of worked.
I know what I should really do is cut everything back, take it all out, separate it into clean and fungal piles, and then shred the clean pile with a lawn mower and put the shredded bits back, but boy do I not have the energy for all that, so I’m going with the less is more look under the belief that nature left to it’s own devices is not a terrible thing. Besides, nature is going to help me start the clean up by breaking down a lot of the foliage for me. Not iris leaves, those I’m going to have to chop back and through on the compost pile so they don’t suffocate the hellebores they are next to, but I don’t bother with hosta or daylily leaves, since the frost and winter do a big number on those. I actually tell people that they if they are going to cut stuff back, to wait for the frost to start the process for them.
The iris I remove with a pair of newly sharpened for fall pruners. They will sharpen them for a small fee at the hardware store, and it’s certainly worth doing each and every year even if, like me you have a bunch. I also recommend Japanese hedge shears since they make the cutting back of grasses a divine process regardless of when you decide to do this chore. Just make sure that when you do cut them back, you leave at least 10 inches of the old grass on the plant or it will be too stressed to grow back properly in the spring.
I leave the bronze fennel foliage up until the foliage has been completely stripped by swallowtail caterpillars, and besides I like it to self seed, but I’m not a fan of dead astilbe flower heads, so those come right off as soon as the flowers start to brown. I think dead astilbe flowers are ugly, I think they just look too ugly for words, and I don’t get the attraction, but I love the way the snow sits on ancient echinaceas and leave those up as long as I can. I guess this is why fall garden clean up is such a personal thing.
And even though I caught myself unconsciously breaking off dead eryngium flower stakes and scattering the seeds, I have learned to leave the fallen leaves in the base of my hedges and in the shrub borders of my property. I’m even getting better about leaving the leaf litter be in beds, but I do pick them off the lawn and put them into my compost pile as they would suffocate the grass if left in place. I live for these leaves each year as they make the most beauteous compost with which I feed my vegetable beds each year.
Actually, this year, I’m trying something new in the vegetable garden. Tulip bulbs. You see each year I dig them into the perennial beds, and in the process, I’m afraid to say, perennials get lost. This is because I am greedy with bulbs, buying them by the hundreds at a time, and then sometimes I need help installing them. And sometimes my assistants are not as careful as I tend to be. So it’s time for a change. I really like the idea of harvesting tulips more than I’m interested in harvesting kale, besides my chickens adore kale and scratch it right up and out of the ground. Greedy chickens. Hopefully they won’t be as hungry for tulips.
Paige Patterson brought home a beautiful new hydrangea paniculata called ‘Fire and Ice’ because it wrapped its little stems around her leg and wept until she put it in the car.