Don’t leaf it too long: Time to tidy the gardens

It’s time to clean up your gardens. People put it off for a long time in southern Maine because it seemed that the first frost would never come. While plant-killing frosts have arrived as early as Sept. 20 in Cape Elizabeth since 1975, it was late October before we got one this year.

Some garden writers say a fall cleanup is unnecessary. They argue that cleaning out spent plants is not the way it works in nature. Leaves fall to the ground and decompose, improving the soil in the process.

I believe, however, that a home garden is not nature. It is nature civilized or controlled. It is less messy and closer to perfection, if all goes well. I don’t like looking out the window in winter and seeing a lot of brown plant leaves sticking up above the winter snow or, if it snows little, lying on the ground.

That does not mean we cut down everything, although some gardeners advocate that, as well. Bill Cullina, executive director of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, said a couple of years ago that leaving up grasses and other good-looking plants “is like putting up a vacancy sign for the voles.”

Nancy and I have not had a problem with voles, and we like the looks of tall grasses with their seed heads and tall sedum standing up above the snow with the grass waving in the breeze.

Even Cullina does not advocate cutting down everything. He leaves up plants like lavender, hyssop and other woody mints that regrow in the spring from buds above the ground.

It is more efficient to put off the fall cleanup until after the first frost so you can cut down and compost everything all at once. That would work with a small garden.

But garden perennials begin to go limp and turn yellow or brown even before a frost, because of the cooler temperature and decreasing sunlight. We cut those down as soon as they look bad. It makes the garden look better and spreads the cleanup out over several weeks.

While you are cutting back the plants, remove any weeds you find. It is easier now than it will be in the spring, when they are larger and more deeply rooted.

There is no controversy over cleaning out the vegetable garden. Remove everything that has gone by. The tomatoes, cucumbers and squashes had stopped producing long before we had our first frost, and I pulled those plants during the first week of October. The potato vines died back in September, so I dug the potatoes. The onion tops flopped, so I pulled, dried and stored the onions.

The pepper plants thrived during the warm October, and those were the only things I had to harvest and then pull when the frost threatened.

The only vegetables still growing in the garden are carrots and leeks, which can be harvested from underneath the snow in early December, before the frost gets too deep.

I have moved some other tasks to the fall from spring. I used to wait until spring to clean the raspberry beds, removing the dead canes that produced fruit this year and getting rid of the weeds.

Last year I got busy and left up the tall asparagus plants. They ended up trapping a lot of oak leaves, which made for a lot more work when I was preparing the vegetable garden for the spring. So I’ve already cut back the asparagus this fall.

That brings us to leaves. Usually sometime in early November, I will mow the lawn with my bagger on, and spread the chopped leaves onto the vegetable garden, to a thickness of an inch or two. Running the leaves through the mower chops the leaves up enough so they will break down during the first part of the growing season.

Whole leaves, especially whole oak leaves, do not break down easily. Chopped leaves don’t make your garden pH acid; they just make your garden soil nice and workable.

In late November when the last leaves have fallen we will use actual lawn rakes to remove the rest of the leaves. Actually raking helps remove thatch from the lawn, is better for picking up acorns and is a lot quieter than leaf blowers or vacuums. We rake the leaves onto tarps and haul them off to be composted, some on our own property and the rest at the town compost center.

Then, it’s time to get ready for Christmas. I’ve already pruned out a living Christmas tree.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.