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The Fall Garden - Reasons to not clean it up!

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

It's a cold drizzly day here, summer left quickly and I've done nothing in my garden! And that's PERFECT! I discovered by accident that we really shouldn't clean up the majority of our plants in the fall garden. Seriously. My garden is more robust than ever, for precisely this reason!

I have small scale gardened on postage-stamp-sized city lots for years. I learned that for the best garden, you clean up all the plants, chop them down, haul them to the compost pile, etc etc. But here's the thing. What do you do in the spring? You fill your wheelbarrow or bucket with that compost and bring it back to the plants. I did that for 20+yrs.

The garden bed this Sept 29th (my poor Autumn Joy had tree branches fall on it), I don't have one from last year. I'm Zone 5a - 6. I plant MANY things outside my zone that survive for me, although don't survive at a neighbors down the road. A big part of that is NOT cleaning my fall garden!

Bee, Butterfly & Dragonfly garden

In 2013 we moved to the country, my gardening scaled up and cleaning my fall garden was a huge chore, although one I did cause I was told I 'should'. Fall of 2016 we had a family situation and cleaning up the yard didn't matter. I did nothing and didn't care but I expected a holy hell of a mess come spring. I was SHOCKED. Come spring I did 1/3 of the clean up of every other year of my life, my plants came up sooner and were more robust. It had been a tough winter, so I was thrilled and confused. I soon discovered Permaculture. Nature doesn't come in with a giant rake and shears in order to have plants come back year after year, so why do we?

4' wide hosta reduced to this.

BENEFITS I've discovered of not cleaning my fall garden:

  • It's WAY less work than hauling it all the to the compost and then hauling it all back in spring!

  • The bugs and birds use the plant parts to live in, eat and make spring nests, particularly native bees that often climb into hollow plant stems. Some butterflies over winter in plants in Crysalis form, and ladybugs, lacewings and lots of other helpful things hide under piles of leaves ready to combat you aphids in spring!

  • By April (yes, it almost kills me to wait until then to do my small amount of cleanup) all I have left are a few handfuls of soft mostly rotted leaves per plant & depending on the plant, some hardened stems to remove.

  • Most leaves & soft branches have rotted adding nutrients back into the soil/plant

  • The stems help me find each plant long before anything pokes through the soil

  • The stems remind me how wide and tall each plant got, so I can see at a glance what I need to move.

  • The plants make fun shapes under the snow for a more interesting winter garden

  • The leaves fall among the stems, together they create a snow insulation blanket protecting your tender plants.

Zone 5a to 6a Chives March 20th
  • My plants start growing much earlier in spring! Once the snow has melted the nights are still very cold. When you've cleaned your garden, that cold will meet with your teeny perennial nubs and delay them. Under the shelter of the pile of rotting leaves, the plants are waking up and getting busy.

  • The plants re-nourish themselves, as they rot, like they do in nature

  • AND, if you're anything like me, the temperatures right now feel nasty & you're bundled up. In spring +12C (53 for my F folks) is T-shirt & suntanning weather 😄

  • By fall I'm burned out & life is busy. Cleaning the garden is a chore.

  • By Spring I'm WAY MORE ENERGIZED about gardening and can't wait to get out there. This way I'm doing productive things instead of jumping ahead too early. I'm discover surprises as I slowly clean up. NOTE: Over 10C, even at night, is ideal before clearing everything away. I only clear up where I'm putting in my brassica's since I'm putting them in long before 10c at night!

  • It's much easier to see where to prune when you see the new growth happening.

April 20th. This 25' x 8' garden bed took me 25mins to clean up in spring with only 1 wheelbarrow load. REMINDER - this is how much stuff I'd have had to haul away in Sept

Now a caveat, I garden primarily for food for myself, the bees, birds, and wildlife. Many things like bulbs REQUIRE fall effort. Your average perennial or annual does NOT.

This is my 3 year old Rhubarb. It's RIDICULOUSLY awesome. The stems were a rich deep red inside & it's massive, the leaves were 2' wide. It's this happy because it's along my gutter creek and gets lots of spring runoff plus it gets such an early start each year under its pile of decaying leaves. My 14lb dog is standing with Rhubarb in July, the messy decay photo is today and I won't be touching it until April.

What I REMOVE from my garden

  • Seed heads for things I don't want to self sow (90% weed heads. I mostly grow things that I want to self sow, particularly my annuals that fight aphids & leafminers)

  • Seed heads for saving

  • Powdery mildew leaves - those go straight to the green bin

  • Sunflower Stalks for drying - these make the most amazing stakes! Check out the size of these Taiyo Stems! Thanks West Coast Seeds. These got planted late, although are still 8' tall with 20+flower heads on each

All perennials AND annuals are left exactly as is, with their nodding flower heads & stems dried up. This photo was taken Apr 14th. You can see the squash still hanging on the arbour and crumpled in the corner, lol

Weeds I chop and drop to rot back into the soil. I'm still making compost/soil for new beds with all my kitchen, weeds and mid-year pruning (my land is clay and rock) so I haven't had enough to top my annuals yet. If I did, I'd spread it over the chop and drop. I do add a 4"pot of compost to each perennial in spring, once I've checked my driplines and done my dividing.


My garden is ABUNDANT with birds every spring cause I've got all the food! They come for the seeds left behind and do a great job of cleaning up pests too. The intact stalks give them a place to perch out of reach of cats. My office window looks out over my butterfly, hummingbird and dragonfly garden and it's sooooo busy in the spring with song birds having a party! (this is the Joe Pye Weed that towered at the back of the garden)

LEAVES - I'm surrounded by fir and pine, so I get few leaves. I was actually picking up people's bagged up leaves they left out for recycyling just so I had the brown in my compost. Most of my leafy trees are out front and fall under the trees into the iris and thyme & rot there. Those that blow out on my concrete are used in the compost. I also use up much of my cardboard by layering it into my compost pile - it's my 'brown' and works perfectly! The few dried stalks and leaves I remove in spring also count as 'brown'! When I am breaking ground for a new garden bed, I chop and drop the weeds (removing seed heads from the most aggressive ones), add compost if I have some left and cover with cardboard (or construction plastic if a large area). By spring the weeds have rotted and the earthworms were busy decomposing the cardboard and plant matter and the soil is significantly looser. I will have some weeds survive this process, although it does kill most.

This is my experience with not cleaning my garden each fall, I'd love to hear any other benefits of lazy gardening with nature!

A few other articles you may find helpful

Happy Growing, Cooking & Eating!

XO Dana K

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