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Fall Cleanups – To Do or Not To Do?

Fall cleanups have become a source of great tribulation for the gardener in the past few years. And not because of the work involved. Rather, it is a trial on social media and among fellow gardeners, as a moral issue. As gardeners trend toward using more natives, and less pesticides in their landscapes, it becomes an issue to clean up the garden in autumn, when they might be killing off beneficial insects.

Many gardeners are trying to achieve harmony with nature and with their homeowner associations. Or they want to use less pesticides to keep their kids and animals safer. And some just want to feel good about helping the environment.

So what circumstances are gardeners facing which dictates whether or not they do fall cleanups? There are several, with the most important being what kind of landscape you maintain. Is it a native garden, woodland, or park? Do you have a manicured lawn and rocked landscape beds? Or do you have a mixture of styles?

The Great American Lawn

The problem that arises is what to do with the Great American Lawn? Over the last century and a half, Americans have been pushed to grow a monoculture of grass and call it perfection. If we choose to not grow the perfect stand of turf, then we are often called hippies, outcasts, and much worse. While I love the look of the perfect green grass lawn, I cringe when I think about what it is causing gardeners to do.

I am not advocating for the removal of 30 million acres of turfgrass; that would collapse the golf course and landscaping industry. What I would like to see instead, is a change towards a more organic and natural approach to lawns. But to get there it will take a green industry movement similar to a national revolution.

If you grow a perfectly cut and trimmed, one to three species lawn, then you will NEED to do a fall cleanup, in some fashion. To keep that turf beautiful, leaves cannot be left on it over the fall and winter months. What happens most often is that leaf piles get wet, and smother out turf grasses. So, fall cleanups are necessary for turf lovers, and golf courses.

Fall cleanups are necessary for turf lawns
If these leaves are left on the turf, the grass will be smothered and die out.

A Natural Approach to Lawns

What do I mean a more natural approach to lawns? Are lawns natural? No. The Great American Lawn has roots in Europe, and is not a natural thing at all. But a meadow or glade are natural mimics of the lawn. And you can do something similar in your own lawn, which would both reduce chemical use and improve landscape biodiversity.

To create such a lawn, you would need to know what low growing grasses are native to your area, and your micro-climate within your landscape.

What is a micro-climate? An area within a larger area, which has differing conditions than the larger environment. An example would be you having a shady woodland garden in a region known for prairies or deserts.

In my own lawn spaces, I am encouraging and planting a variety of species, which mimic the lawn look, but not the lawn maintenance. Sunnier spots get overseeded with buffalo or white clover, blue grama, Texas sedge, and buffalograss. I have also planted crocuses, and left things like wild strawberries, field pussytoes, and plantains growing. And dandelions, just so long as they do not take over. I also leave most of the leaves.

Fall Cleanups on Rocked Beds

When I worked in Manhattan, KS, I could pick out the landscape of our competition, by the type of rock they used and plants. And we used rock too. If you have read my other blogs, and/or know me, then you know that I am not a fan of rocking your landscapes. I refuse to call it mulch, because it is not. Rocked landscapes have many vices, and and one of the biggest culprits is fall cleanups. You HAVE to cleanup the beds in fall.

If you choose not to do fall cleanups on your rocked beds, then you get weed seeds, leaves, and debris left all winter. Bits of the leaves and other debris stay between the rocks and result in future weed outbreaks and dirty rock. While I may leave some plant material, such as grasses and roses in the rocked areas, everything else is usually removed to prevent debris from building up.

Fall cleanups on rocked landscape beds
Plants such as hosta (above) are messy and have little to no potential wildlife value in winter. Also, rocked beds such as these need to be cleaned up each fall to prevent debris build-up.

Fall Cleanups on Mulched Beds

Here is where the big moral question really plays out. The difference from above is that you can make a moral decision regarding the landscape, while as with rocked beds, you have to clean them up. Do you take the moral high ground and leave cleanup until spring or minimal at best, or do you choose to cleanup your landscape in the fall, knowing you may be killing future generations of insects, both good and bad?

As a landscape professional, I often do not get a say in this. My customers decide for me. Many of them do not want to see dead standing grasses and perennials, nor leaves in the beds. So I compromise. In most cases, I am able to choose what plants are removed in the fall versus spring, and how many of the leaves to take out.

For example, I usually remove catmint, hostas, coral bells, irises, daylilies, and baptisia. Except for the baptisia, all the plants are nonnative and play little to no role in the overwintering of insects. As for the baptisia, which have hollow stems for insects, I remove because they will blow down in the first snow and wind, and drift across the landscape to get stuck in the ac unit (it happens). Everything else I leave, unless a customer specifically requests otherwise.

A Homeowner’s Perspective

As a homeowner and gardener, I do things differently at my house. In the Monarch Waystation and meadow garden, I leave most of the plants until February, then cut them short and remove them to a brush pile which never gets burned. Then I burn the leaves and stubble left over. Other gardens get their haircuts in March. And again, I take the cuttings to a brush pile. Leaves on the lawn are raked, not mowed, and added to a compost bin to be used later.

By having a place to put my cuttings and leaves, with no danger from burning or mowing, I can ensure that the majority of overwintering insects has the chance to live. Also, by providing brush piles, I get more songbirds in spring and summer. As for the leaves, most are mixed in with compost or directly into raised beds the following fall. I think that most homeowners with acreage could easily do something similar. For those in the city, it would be nice to have a neighborhood or community lot for your garden debris, with a similar expectance.

Late winter burning
Late winter burning of the Author’s Monarch Waystation. Large perennials are cut and removed beforehand to a brush pile.

Conclusion

When it comes to the decision of whether or not to do fall cleanups, it comes down to each individual. What is feasible versus what is not. For many homeowners, even those with an organic approach to landscaping, they may not have any other choice but to remove everything in fall. But for the rest of us, we find a way to protect diversity. How you do it is up to you.

Happy planting!

author of fall cleanups

2 thoughts on “Fall Cleanups – To Do or Not To Do?

  1. Question on your fall clean up on rock beds….my Hydranges although not in rock beds have bloomed wonderfully the last couple of years…very little fertilizer used …Is it because
    I leave them alone in the fall? they look like yours in above picture . I do clean off leaves when they are dried out but leave the stalks alone until late spring and then trim back to knee high. I must say they are not pretty now but is this correct ?

    1. Hi Joyce,

      Thank you for reading and for your question. Depending of what variety of hydrangea you have, it is very likely that leaving them alone in the fall has contributed to their blooming performance. The above photo is of bigleaf hydrangeas, Hydrangea macrophylla, and they are best left alone in winter. This is because many of the varieties bloom on both new and old wood, and older varieties bloom only on old wood. But I have noticed a difference on newer varieties if cut back in fall or even early spring, to let them grow on new wood only-they do not bloom very well. If left alone and only dead wood cut back in spring after they begin to bud out, they bloom so much better. So yes, leaving them until spring to cut back allows them to bloom on both old and new wood. If yours are newer varieties, they will still bloom on new wood, but bloom better because you wait and do not cut them all the way back.

      Thank you,

      Andrew Mitchell

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