Fall Clean-Up

Are You an Excessive Gardener or a Laidback One?

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Excessive gardeners have a passion for cleanliness, but laidback gardeners know that many of their plantings can largely take care of themselves.

Fall is really the season that determines whether you’re an excessive gardener or a laidback one. For excessive gardeners, fall is a long season of endless tasks, while for laidback gardeners, it’s an equally long season, but of relaxation.

Fall Cleanup

Fall cleanup: is it really necessary?

Excessive gardeners, for instance, feel a strong need to clean up their flower beds each fall. They pull out all their annuals and cut their perennials to the ground so that their beds are thoroughly clean. They need pruning shears, a garden rake and a lot of plastic bags, because that’s a lot of stock to remove. When they’re finished, they contemplate with satisfaction flower beds empty of anything that grows, because an empty flower bed is a clean flower bed and cleanliness is what counts.

It’s a waste of time pointing out to them that they have just seriously damaged their beds. By pulling out the annuals, they just tossed into the trash lots of great soil that clung to their roots, leaving what remains of the soil exposed to erosion over the coming months. Also, all those beneficial microbes and creatures that live in the soil will have been horribly disturbed … but so what, they think, because who needs fungi, bacteria and beneficial insects when massive doses of fertilizer and pesticides will do the job?

By cutting back perennials, they expose the poor plants to the worst rigors of winter, because perennials evolved so that their stems and leaves remain in place through the winter to protect them from the cold. So what? Dead plants can be replaced!

Unfortunately, those perennials that do survive the winter often come out of it in a weakened state, but after all, doesn’t a good fall cleanup count more than the health of your plants?

Beneficial insects

In addition, many beneficial insects overwinter in the dead and dying leaves and stems of perennials and annuals they’ve just put out with the refuse. As a result, the next year they’ll need to do a lot of spraying with pesticides to keep harmful insects at bay, since they just eliminated their pest’s natural controls.

Laidback gardeners, on the other hand, leave their annuals and perennials alone from fall through spring. True enough, the annuals will be dead, killed by frost, but even dead they play an important role in the ecosystem, reducing erosion and helping to catch and hold on to the snow that will protect perennials and shrubs nearby. Even when there is no snow, dead annuals slow down raging winds. Nor do laidback gardeners cut back their perennials. Over millions of years, they have evolved so that their stems stay upright over the winter while their leaves die back and cover their crown, protecting it from the cold. Moreover, the best fertilizer for any plant is its own decomposing foliage: it contains exactly the right dose of minerals to nourish the plant over the coming year.

In Spring

Why undo “Nature’s Survival Plan” just to make a garden look clean? Mother Nature doesn’t know the word clean, but she does know how to produce beautiful, healthy plants! In the spring, yes, you can cut to the ground any dead stems still standing if that bothers you, but there is never any need to remove dead foliage from the previous year. Most will have decomposed over the winter and any leftover leaves are disappearing fast, enriching the soil and thus eliminating any need on the gardener’s part to apply fertilizer.

As a result, in fact, there is very little cleanup to carry out even in spring. Almost none, in fact, since Mother Nature takes care of almost everything when you let her do her job.

Attracting Feathered Friends

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Plants are natural bird feeders … if you don’t cut them back in the fall! Photo: Max Pixel

Excessive gardeners install bird feeders for the winter. They’re expensive enough on their own, but bird seed, a lot of which only gets tossed to the ground by birds, notoriously messy feeders, is expensive too and you always seem to need to buy more. Not to worry: excessive gardeners always seem to have deep pockets and love to throw their cash around.

Laidback gardeners, on the other hand, don’t need to install bird feeders for the winter. The plants that they didn’t cut back (sunflowers, echinaceas, rudbeckias, grasses, etc.) bear seeds that naturally feed birds. They’ll have as many winged visitors as their excessive neighbors, but by letting Mother Nature do all the work.

Winter Protection

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Rather than wrap plants up to protect them from the winter cold, why not plant varieties that don’t need protection? Photo: pixabay

As soon as fall cleanup is over, excessive gardeners hasten to wrap every plant they didn’t cut back in geotextile or burlap for the winter. Nothing escapes them: there’ll be “mummies” everywhere before they’re through! Their only disappointment is that they can’t wrap their tall trees from top to bottom, but they do get to all the other woody plants (shrubs, roses, conifers, young trees, etc.).

Excessive gardeners don’t trust Mother Nature to protect their plants against winter damage … and since they’ve never been outside the city in their life (at least not without blinders on), they have no idea that the conifers, shrubs, roses and trees they spend so much effort protecting actually get through the winter in fine shape all on their own! They even wrap up their evergreens, which they had originally bought “because they are attractive 12 months a year,” thus turning them ugly for months at a time, but what can you expect from excessive gardeners if not to be excessive in everything?

By wrapping their plants for the winter, they think they’re protecting them from the cold, for they’re convinced that a layer of geotextile or jute will keep the cold from penetrating and harming their plants. Of course, logically speaking, it’s exactly the same temperature inside these protections as outside, since plants give off no heat for the wrapping to trap. In fact, winter protection systems don’t protect against the cold at all. What they do accomplish is to reduce the drying effect of wind … a little!

Hardiness Zone

Laidback gardeners don’t wrap anything up for the winter. Instead, they choose plants according to their climate and growing conditions. In particular, they check into the hardiness zone of plants before they put them in and avoid the plants of warmer zones, contenting themselves with plants that are hardy in the zone where the garden, that is, ones of their hardiness zone or any lesser number, since the smaller the number, the more cold the plant can take.

For example, a laidback gardener who lives in zone 5 would only choose plants from zones 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, never 6 or 7. One from zone 4 would prefer plants in zones 1, 2, 3 and 4. And so on. Any plant that does suffer from winter damage because it’s not well adapted to its planting spot is either moved to one where it grows better or is replaced with a plant that is better suited.

For example, everyone knows that rhododendrons and other broadleaf evergreens, even when properly chosen according to their hardiness zone, are not adapted to strong winds, so they plant them in spots where nearby vegetation provides wind protection. And they avoid planting shrubs or evergreens where snow from a snowblower can get to them, as they’ll certainly be damaged by the tearing action of ice crystals. The living part of perennials, on the other hand, is dormant and underground during the winter. You can therefore plant them when snow is blown and they won’t be harmed.

Fall Leaves

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All those leaves, so rich in minerals, just being thrown away. What a waste! Photo: Bigmouth1, Wikimedia Commons

Excessive gardeners rake up all the fall leaves that land on their lot and put them out along the street so their municipality can dispose of them: often dozens and dozens of bags of “waste” are hauled away so their lot is perfectly “clean.” As soon as the wind brings in a few more leaves, they begin all over again.

It’s not that laidback gardeners don’t pick up the leaves that fall on their lot, but they limit themselves to collecting only the leaves that land on their lawn and human-made structures: deck, sandbox, etc.: they know that leaves that fall in flower beds, vegetable gardens and wooded areas do no harm, but instead nourish the soil. Turf, though, and it’s a highly artificial environment, doesn’t tolerate being shaded from months on end by fall leaves. They pick them up too, although not as zealously as excessive gardeners (a few leaves on a lawn do no harm; it’s only when the lawn starts to be really covered with them that you’d need to pick them up).

Get Shreddin’!

They often pick them up with a shredder/blower that shreds the leaves into tiny pieces or use their lawnmower to do the same. And they don’t throw their leaves away. Once shredded, they make a wonderful free mulch that doesn’t blow around in the wind and they can place in their flower beds and vegetable gardens to enrich the soil even as it protects the crowns and roots of hardy plants from the cold. The more mulch they apply, the more beautiful their flower beds are.

Any shredded leaves left over can then feed the composter.

So, are you an excessive gardener or a laidback gardener? It is your actions over the coming weeks that tell all!

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.

4 comments on “Are You an Excessive Gardener or a Laidback One?

  1. pochardpicture

    Personally, I like to be a relaxed cookie clicker gardener. Because that will help me save time and be able to do other things.

  2. Pingback: Don’t Cut Back Ornamental Grasses in Fall – Laidback Gardener

  3. I guess I’m an excessive gardener but I don’t live in the city and I do also mulch the ground in the autumn. I also compost most of what is pulled out and cut back and I then plant spring flowering plants such as wallflower so my flowerbeds aren’t empty, I don’t have mummies in the garden but do overwinter tender plants in the greenhouse,

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