Attracting birds Composting Environment Fall Clean-Up Gardening Harmful insects

How to Do Fall Clean-Up When There are Still Flowers?

Why would anyone want to empty a garden that’s still full of flowers? Source: A hikayeler.me & hanslodge.com, montage: laidbackgardener.com

Question: We inherited a large and very attractive flower bed when we bought our house last year. I intended to clean up the garden for the winter, but last year the flowers lasted until the end of October and that didn’t leave me time to do it. I don’t want to be caught unprepared again this year, but now it looks as if I’ll have as many plants in bloom this year as last. I’m thinking of tearing out the late-blooming plants and sticking to strictly to summer flowers, but I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. What do you recommend?

Isabel Cantin

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Is it even necessary to pull out beautiful blooms in the fall? Source: digital.vpr.net

Answer: There is really no need to clean up a flower bed in the fall. It’s not beneficial to plants and can even be harmful. Here’s why:

  • An accumulation of dead stems and leaves are part of nature’s way of protecting the soil from erosion and perennials and bulbs from cold damage. If you don’t clean up, many plants will be in better shape next spring.
  • Dead leaves enrich the soil by decomposing on the spot: when you remove them, you’re depleting the soil of minerals and you’ll have to fertilize next year. That’s extra work and an added expense for you.
  • Many beneficial insects—the ones that control plant pests—overwinter in “garden debris,” including the dead leaves and stems of annuals and perennials. By cleaning up in the fall, you may be making your garden more susceptible to insect problems next year!
  • Many perennials and annuals produce seed heads that ripen in the fall, attracting and feeding birds. By leaving them standing, you’ll attract pretty feathered friends from fall through winter.

Those are just a few reasons why the traditional “fall clean-up” usually does more harm than good to flower beds.

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A flower bed at snow melt. Not too pretty yet, with still lots of “debris” on the ground,  but in a few weeks, everything will be hidden from view as the plants grow back. Source: bloomingreverend.com

If you insist on cleaning up, wait until spring. By then, there will be much, much less to pick up, because most of the so-called waste will have decomposed during the winter, leaving you with only a few stems still standing. Anything on the ground you can simply leave there: your garden plants will soon hide anything unsightly from view, allowing the debris to decompose out of sight.

Rather than cleaning up your gardens, let Mother Nature do her job: she knows just what to do.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

4 comments on “How to Do Fall Clean-Up When There are Still Flowers?

  1. I love watching the winter birds flitting from the grasses and coneflowers foraging for seeds. I never clean my gardens until Spring. It may not look the best, but the wildlife certainly appreciates my lack of fall housekeeping:)

  2. I just read your article “How to Fall Clean-Up When There are Still Flowers”. It’s amazing. I love the tips and tricks you have in there! Thank you for sharing them with us. I’m sure they will come in handy this year when we do our fall clean-up. The one thing that stands out to me is how fast everything has grown this year, and it can be hard to keep up with all of those leaves and flowers at once. Sure enough, on the day of my last fall clean-up project, I found myself raking up a pile of gorgeous green leaves as well as a bunch of dried summer flowers from around my mailbox post!

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