WAILING WIND, LASHING rain and darkening days tilt more haunting than hospitable but, like a great full moon (howling optional), these next few months are an important cycle in your garden’s seasonal continuum. It’s time to rethink fall garden cleanup to build a more resilient and healthier garden environment.
Begin your seasonal sweep by removing any diseased plants, paying particular attention to problem areas, like spotty roses, struggling fruit trees and the vegetable garden. Applying amendments that are slow to break down, such as agricultural lime, bone meal and rock phosphate, in autumn allows time for natural processes to work, ensuring that nutrients will be readily available when plants begin growing next year. Hold off until spring on adding fresh manure and nitrogen-rich amendments (blood meal, cottonseed meal and alfalfa meal) that break down quickly. Cold temperatures prevent plants from taking up nutrients, which means rain-leached, water-soluble nutrients are a potential source of contamination — not to mention a waste of your resources.
On the other hand, fallen leaves are a valuable source of no-cost garden riches, yours free for the gathering. Rake or blow (if you must) to remove leaves from the lawn to prevent smothering the grass. It’s also a good idea to keep pathways clear to avoid slippery surfaces. But everywhere else, leave leaves to lie where they drop, or gather them up to spread around garden shrubs and perennials, where they will slowly break down over winter, adding valuable drought-busting organic matter to the soil.
We are never alone (cue spooky music). Ecological transubstantiation is afoot. Even when things are looking the most bleak and barren, the garden is host to a teeming population of insects and soil microbes — literally, a web of life that sustains growth. You can thank detritivores — organisms like earthworms, beetles and fungi that feed on dead and decomposing organic matter — for doing the heavy lifting out in the garden while you’re cozy indoors.
And those scary-looking mushrooms? Even the most alarming ones are not a sign of disease, but of health. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of vast underground mycelium, threadlike fungal networks in the landscape that create soil vitality.
Herbaceous plants (those that send up new growth in spring but die back to the ground about now) and fading annuals also provide plenty of natural materials that can be cut back and left in place to cycle nutrients back into the soil. Be sure to leave a few plants and seed heads standing to feed overwintering birds and provide habitat for beneficial insects and soil microbes.
Not ready to go completely off script with your traditional fall cleanup? Try concentrating your tidying efforts along frequently used pathways by topping beds and edges with a trim layer of mulch, like compost or wood chips, and leave everything else a little looser.
Finally, I know what you’re thinking about: slugs or, in my case, snails. It’s true: Leaf litter and mulch are prime real estate for these dastardly terrestrial mollusks. Concentrate (organic) slug and snail control in early spring as you tidy up in advance of the growing season to check their assault on emerging plants.