Fall Clean-Up

Doesn’t Nature Do Things Well!

I love fall because the gardens are beautiful and you can enjoy their beauty without lifting a finger. Wonderful, isn’t it?

No more pulling up weeds (if you haven’t pulled them before autumn, it’s a waste of time, you might as well learn to live with them). Also, no more watering. Evaporation decreases in the fall and the rains are usually more abundant. So plants essentially grow on their own. No more treatments against insects and diseases (as if I applied any anyway…). It works on its own, as it should. Gardening can be so easy for laidback gardeners!

rake on dried tree leaves to do an autumn cleanup
Is the great fall cleanup really necessary? Photo: pxhere.com.

What About the Great Fall Cleanup?

“Wait a second!”, a lot of gardeners will certainly say. What about the “great fall cleanup”? Well, I’ve done away with it, of course, with all the other useless gardening tasks that used to take up so much of my time.

I am always impressed by the incredible efforts that meticulous gardeners put into cutting all their perennials to the ground in the fall, picking up every little leaf that they find lying around, tearing out all the annuals, etc. And all for the so-called purpose of “preparing flowerbeds for winter”. What nonsense! The more you clean in the fall, the less the flowerbeds are ready to face the winter !

Formal garden
A meticulous garden is clean, but is it necessary? Photo: Jooniur, Wikimedia Commons.

Clean, Clean, Clean

The only goal, basically, of the great fall cleanup is to “make flowerbeds cleaner”. Personally, I’d rather wait a few weeks for the snow to hide everything from view than do all that work for nothing. However, meticulous gardeners probably get some sense of usefulness from it. I even heard one of these gardeners say that he did this to help the plants! (Let’s take a break while I stop laughing.) No doubt fall cleaning is an excellent physical activity for people who have nothing else to do… but gardeners shouldn’t try to pretend that they are doing this to help the plants!

Harmful to Perennials

On the contrary, carrying out the great fall cleanup is harmful to perennials. Because nature has provided a perfect antidote against the extreme cold of winter in its survival strategy for these plants. Indeed, every year, the leaves of perennials turn brown and fold down to the ground in order to cover their crown and their roots with a natural mulch. The dead leaves and stems of perennials catch the dying leaves of the trees in order to better build their winter protection.

stems of dried flowers in a garden, we can leave them in our garden without doing a fall cleanup
A plant’s own stems and leaves are a natural winter protection. Photo: Joel Olives

Natural Winter Protection

This way, when the cold, drying winds of winter blow, the delicate tissues are safe. Not only do they not have to suffer the effect of “wind chill”, but the average temperature, in winter, of the air surrounding the roots thus protected exceeds that of the ambient air. “Mother Nature’s mulch” not only protects against the cold, but also against the heaving caused by the alternating action of freezing and thawing. Beneath the clusters of their own leaves and those of other plants, perennials remain frozen and dormant until spring, not moving when abnormally warm temperatures from occasional winter thaws cause so much damage to unprotected plants.

garden whose flowerbeds have been covered with white fabric
Winter protection is twice the workl. Photo: botanix.com

Twice the Work

At least meticulous gardeners have noticed this problem. I know some who keep repeating to anyone who will listen that they lose half of their perennials every winter, as if it were the fault of the perennials that too much maintenance killed them. Jealous to see that their neighbors’ plants survive the winter better than their own (personally, I almost never lose any), they came up with an ingenious solution. After having meticulously cleaned their flowerbeds and thus having put the perennials in danger of death, they cover them with vast carpets of geotextile, thus replacing the natural winter protection with an artificial one. Twice the work for the same result? Only a meticulous gardener could have thought of that!

(Three times really! They have to remove their geotextile in the spring!)

Nature has taken millions of years to develop a system that works perfectly well! And meticulous gardeners think they can do better? I highly doubt it!

Flower bed with dead plants in the spring before the plants have had time to grow again, no fall cleanup
No spring cleanup? No problem! The vegetation will soon grow and cover evrything up.. Photo: blogs.cornell.edu

No Fall Cleanup, No Spring Cleanup

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that not only do I avoid the great fall cleanup, but I don’t do it in the spring any more either. It is true that when the snow melts, the sea of dead leaves mixed here and there with brown stems gives the garden a messy look, but I know very well that in just a few weeks the vegetation will have grown back and everything it will be hidden. In addition, whatever is left behind—brown foliage of perennials, dead leaves fallen from trees, stems and roots of annuals from the previous year , etc.—decomposes and enriches my soil.

So I do less work and get better results. Only a laidback gardener would have thought of that!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

8 comments on “Doesn’t Nature Do Things Well!

  1. One of the many advantages of our unrefined landscapes is that the forest does most of the work for us. At work, I often get compliments on the redwood trees, as if I planted them, . . . centuries ago. I remind people that the work we do is quite minimal, and that we just add a few colorful goodies to pretty the place up a bit. Much of the debris that gets raked (from the few places that get raked) gets raked right off the edge and out into the surrounding forest.

  2. Yesssss! Score again for suburban civil disobedience! Most of our plantings are perennials,
    and we’ve been doing the minimum in yard cleanup for years. Oooooh, the dirty looks from Lawnmower Man, who scalps his poor browning, chemically drenched turf twice a week, whose lawn is meticulously weedwacked of the tiniest invader, and whose plants are surrounded by plastic tarps covered with pristine white marble chips.

    I’m keeping a copy of this to wave in his enraged face the next time he complains about our leaves “invading” his precious property!

    Take that, ya lousy wart!
    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

  3. Mary L Discuillo

    Is it laid-back or lazy? What if it doesn’t snow in my part of the country? What if it is possible to look pretty year round? I’d prefer my leaves and dying items to be in a compost pit somewhere and then when nature turned it into good mulch respread it. I’d rather cut my spent items down instead of ‘letting nature do it”. Please don’t make us meticulous gardeners feel like we are just spinning our wheels ‘to give us something to do’.We work hard in our gardens so it looks nice all the time I enjoy some of your blogs and pick up some good tidbits but this one just made me mad.

    • No, you are just helping birds, pollinators, butterflies, fireflies and the rest of the ecology disappear, and all for what? Merely pretty? Control? Pride? Intolerance of other species?

      Me, that is not a responsibility I want to bear. My meticulous tendencies are spent INSIDE the house (and I am borderline obsessive compulsive about that, lol). Bringing those outside (making green carpets everywhere that came from a hardware store) is just lethal to the rest of the world, massively cutting down on species biodiversity, then those species are under threat from SO many quarters. I prefer to make a sanctuary, with a little postage stamp sized “lawn” of short native grass, where I actually am outside and using it. Then there are a gradation of heights of plants all the way to the trees, massively increasing the surface area for other creatures to survive. If you are at all open-minded to find out where this is coming from (…and I truly and sincerely hope you are able to put aside your emotions long enough to try that, because no one wants a mad neighbor), try reading a book by Dr. Doug Tallamy called Bringing Nature Home, or listen to some of his wonderful lectures on You Tube. Or for that matter the work of famed late ecologist E.O. Wilson called Half Earth. We are headed towards being a very lonely species on this planet who has to have and control everything. I am headed the other way. As a result of selecting plants and using techniques that foster living animals I grow baby birds in addition to flowers. I grow butterflies, moths, and fireflies, which attract dragon and damselflies, and frogs by learning about which grasses, ferns, and sedges support them.

      I no longer feel the need to drive a long way to a park to see nature…it is right here in my garden with me, and there is no place I would rather be! Everyone has to find their comfort zone, but moving towards being constructive on our planet rather than limiting the ability of our fellow species to survive is important. Extirpation and extinction are terrible words with sinister implications for our own species.

  4. Granny Pat

    In that case, I suppose you would be at least half in love with my wild eastcoast “garden” because, despite the discomfort of my OCD neighbours I don’t rake leaves in fall or winter, don’t apply pesticides or fertilizers and only pull a few weeds when they threaten to obscure my view of blossoms I love, opting instead to treat weeds as photographic art at least as pretty as spring and fall blossoms. I only mow what the municipality demands and, if I were younger or richer would pull up all the grass in favour of a wildflower meadow and find a way to add a frog pond but those last two features are beyond my capabilities. So, while my “garden” will never rival yours I think you might feel somewhat at home amidst my birds and squirrels and pheasants. Now if I could only find another “snag” or two. Thanks for explaining my own laidback style to my neighbours.

  5. What are your thoughts on roses though? I have always read not to let any leaves with black spot winter over, and since (no matter how much spraying I do) I always end up with some black spot, I feel those should be cleaned up. Second question is the layer of leaves – my main garden area is enclosed with a waist high fence and the leaves tend to pile up sometimes up to a foot deep. I totally agree with ‘nature’s mulch’ but also think about the overwintering of bugs that may be harmful to the plants. Is that not true? Is there a leavel of leaves that becomes unhealthy, or does the nature’s mulch outweigh the benefits of overwintering any bugs (or moles voles or others?)

    • Jenny Collins

      I like to cut perennials back sometimes in order to shift then round, thinking a plant would look better do somewhere else or that I could divide them and make two or three.

      I don’t cut back Mediterranean type perennials like lavender, santolina etc but I often lose them anyway – I’m in northern England, we don’t get much snow here but can be very cold and rains a lot. Any ideas to save them? I’ve wondered about putting them in a cold greenhouse, at least they’d be dry

    • Jt Michaels

      Agree about the black spot leaf removal, especially if you want to keep the roses. My country gardens are so ‘laidback’ that if something proves difficult or unhappy in the gardens for three years, it’s put out of its misery in either the compost or burn pile.

      Voles and moles could be an issue, but right now, we need to think about saving our insects. True, some bad bugs will be saved along with the beneficial critters.
      I leave much standing in the gardens over Winter for the sake of insects, plants and the soil itself. Come spring, it’s easy to breakdown the leftovers and use as a self-mulch.

      Perhaps you could remove some of the leaves if you are concerned about smothering anything under a foot of leaves. I’ve heard of it happening. ????

      Although I’ve designed formal gardens for clients, I prefer the wild gardening style learned from life in the ’50s with my farmgirl grandmother.

      Anyway, best of luck!

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