Fall Clean up–What not to do.
It’s pretty late to be talking about fall clean up, but today it’s still sunny, and pretty cold for coastal BC (-1 right now), and it’s Sunday. So there might be a feeling that it’s now or never to clean up the garden.
Make it “never”–or at least make it “minimal” until late winter (andI’ll get to that in late winter).
When you look outside, you see fallen leaves, dead flower stalks, faded (or rotting) flowers, and all manner of “unattractiveness”. You want to clear it all away. Have a fresh canvas for spring growth. You want it tidy. Neat.
Octavia Hall Rose looking the worse for wear
But nature is never tidy, never neat, so I’m going to try to relieve you of the need to make it “nice”.
Dead flower stalks.
There are a few reasons to leave them where they are:
1. If they have seed heads on them, they are food for our local over-wintering birds. Chickadees, juncos, sparrows, towhees, bushtits, house finches… The more you can provide them the better they’ll survive the season. Coneflowers (Echinacea), Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), Shasta Daisies (Leucothemum), even sunflowers (Helianthus)–leave them all.
Rudbeckia seed head
Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They’re probably ~3 mm diameter.
2. They are a reminder of what you have planted so that in spring, when you HAVE to get back out again, and nothing is sprouting yet, you’ll know NOT to dig in that bare spot that Oh, has a flower stalk in the middle of it. You may think you’ll remember where your beloved plants are, but trust me, you won’t!
Daylily (Hemerocallis) flower stalk reminding me when it’s all bare and inviting that something is really there.
3. Hollow stemmed flower stalks provide a nesting place for cavity-nesting native bees like Mason bees. That’s a very good thing in our bee-challenged but bee-dependent environment.
Mostly let them lie where they fall.
Leaves will not only compost-in-place, they also provide habitat for a lot of beneficial critters in the meantime.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis) leaves will stay there until they compost. Besides, they’re a vivid rich brown, quite pretty close-up.
There are a few exceptions to this however. If the leaves had any disease–powdery mildew, black spot, rust, etc– get rid of them. I’ll be cleaning up all the rose leaves today because they are full of black spot. The disease will overwinter because it’s not cold enough here to kill it. And will still be there next year to re-infect. Now having said that, these disease-causing organisms are all around anyway, and if a plant is susceptible, will be affected to some degree, given the right conditions. So is there really any benefit in clearing away the disease-bearing leaves now? Maybe I’ll do a barely-controlled experiment in my “research lab”–aka garden…
Rose leaves kind of indistinguishable from surrounding wood chip mulch. Maybe I’ll leave then there after all…
Another exception is large leaves. Especially the larger maple leaves. They can create an almost impenetrable mat over the ground potentially causing damage to turf grass, and hindering water movement. But an easy solution is to rake them onto the lawn, and mow over them with your mulching mower. The small leaf bits will provide nutrition to the lawn just like the grass clippings have done (and I know you leave your grass clippings on the grass).
All that decaying matter is habitat for beneficial insects, birds, bees, all the things you want to encourage in your garden. It’s true, you are also providing habitat for some things you’d rather not support–like slugs– but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. And if the odd toad or frog turns up, it’ll deal with your slugs anyway. Win-Win.
If you feel the need to tidy things up despite all this, maybe just neaten the edges a bit. Take off those rotting rose blooms, the daylily and hosta leaves that are turning to mush, and of course weeds–getting them now will save some work in March. But keep it simple, and remember, there’s always Spring cleaning soon enough.