Fall garden cleanup lays groundwork for a successful spring

University of Illinois Extension

Rake leaves and add them to your compost pile or locate them near the garden so they are handy to add as mulch next spring and summer. (Photo by Martha A. Smith/ University of Illinois Extension)

Don’t put that trowel and rake away yet. Fall may end this year’s gardening season, but it is the perfect time to begin preparations for next year. Taking care of a few details now means fewer chores, pests and problems next spring.

Take stock

The first step is taking stock of how your garden fared this year. Do a walk through and take notes on plant location and performance, says Martha SmithUniversity of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“You should sketch out your vegetable garden,” Smith says. “Crop rotation is very important when it comes to vegetable diseases. In the spring, you can refer to your sketch rather than rely on your memory and plant vegetables in different locations.”

Perennials and annuals should also receive a year-end review. Note whether this season’s plants met expectations or if different plants and varieties are needed for next year. Perhaps choosing a different location for certain varieties will help their performance. Do any perennials need to be divided? Do it now or make a list for next spring.

Landscape clean up
Diseased plants should be completely removed. Healthy plant debris can be added to your compost pile. If any perennials have been seriously and routinely plagued with disease, fall is the time to discard them before they spread problems to other plants.

After the first frost, remove annuals and cut back tops of tall herbaceous perennials. Many gardeners prefer to leave most of their perennials as they are, cutting them back in the spring. Tall perennials more than 3 feet tall will flop over under the weight of snow or ice and create environments for rodents and other wildlife; many may reseed..

“I always cut seed heads off of Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) and Blackberry Lily (Belamcanda chinensis) before they spread,” Smith says. “But if you want more, let them be.”

Fall bulbs
Dig up tender bulbs such as gladioli, dahlia, and canna lilies. Dry them, and store over winter in a cool, frost-free area. Garden centers have hardy bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, and crocus in stock now. Check out the selection and plant in October and November for spring blooms.

Leaves in the landscape
Rake leaves and add them to your compost pile or locate them near the garden so they are handy to add as mulch next spring and summer.

Don’t let fallen leaves accumulate and mat down over your desirable turf. After the heat of summer, grass is actively growing in the fall. Leaves smother the grass and prevent photosynthesis which is the plants ability to produce food. Consider using fallen leaves as winter mulch around tender plants.

Container plants
Container plants should be pulled and added to your compost pile. Saving potting mix to replant for next year is difficult. Roots are not going to disappear over winter and you will have to deal with them sooner or later. Potting mixes will also lose their organic matter content since it breaks down through the growing season.

Throw roots and media in the compost pile if this is the case and clean out the container with a mild bleach solution of 10-parts water, one-part bleach.

If saving the soil for next year, store it in a dry area or cover it with plastic to keep out debris and prevent it from getting waterlogged.

“Now, you can begin to put away your garden tools,” Smith says. “But while you’re at it, remember to clean the tools, wipe the metal blades with oil, and store them under cover so they too are ready for next year.”