Well, we’re square in the middle of the autumn season. I hope you’re enjoying your garden right now and not thinking too much about the end of it.  These last little drops of fall are to be savored – after all, they are what we will remember when the January banshees start to scream.


autumn field, autumn


As miscanthus plumes ripen and the last of the chrysanthemums brown and fade, you may be tempted to do a bit of wacky-wacky out there to get on top of your fall workload.  But that may not be the best idea.  Let’s explore our options in terms of a pro and con list – the way I like to look at a lot of options in life.

The Total Clean-Up:

What you do:
Exhaust yourself.

How you do it:
Cut back perennials and annuals, rake all leaves and compost, remove all debris, stack cages, trellises and stakes, mulch heavily, feel smug.

okra pods

Photo credit: Kelly Fowler

The garden looks as tidy as a military base, without the Panda Express.

Clean up is reduced in the spring when you are busy with planting.

Some pest and disease problems are alleviated with the removal of debris.

There is less habitat for winter-destructive voles.

Aggressive fall seeders are dead-headed.

Your neighbors love you.

Winter weight gain begins in January, not November.


Less habitat for wildlife, beneficial insects and pollinators.

Winter interest is drastically reduced.  ‘Neat’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘interesting.’

Without marking, you won’t be able to tell where many of your herbaceous plants are located.

A heads down/jobs done approach that can keep you from enjoying the season.


And then there’s the school of Let It Be:

What you do:   

How you do it:     
However you like.  I prefer a glass of Zinfandel and a wicker chair.

A lot more time on your hands.

A beautiful winter scene as frost carpets the rise and fall of the previous season’s garden each morning.

Possible compositions of poetry as a result of the above.

Over-wintering places for pollinating insects and wildlife.

The ability to see where you have planted your herbaceous plants before you cut them back in spring.

A ‘country messy’ look that might bug you.

Non-beneficial bugs that might bug you.

Winter weight that’s definitely going to bug you.

More work in the spring. (There being no such thing as a free lunch.)

Your neighbors give you tight little smiles in the evenings.


You’ve got to weigh your options.  And more than likely, you’ll come up with a compromise.

I certainly do.

  • I try to rake fallen leaves on lawns and driveways and use them to create big piles of leaf mold for next season, but I never remove them from my growing beds, preferring instead to leave a blanket in place for protection and eventual nutrients.
  • I try to cut back some of my more aggressive seeders such as Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry,’ but leave the heads of golden rod, teasel and Echinacea for the birds.
  • I try to mow the lawns one last time and edge the beds tightly, but leave the mowing of wilder areas of grass until the late winter.
  • I try to remove my tomato and pepper cages and stack them, but wait to strip them of odd bits of vine until it is brittle and falling off in March.
  • I try to sit on my deck in November with that glass of zinfandel and wonder what my neighbors are thinking.

Wicked. But satisfying.


tricyrtis, autumn, autumn glow


Notice I specifically wrote ‘try’ in the above.  I cannot get to everything, and I certainly don’t want anyone thinking I can.  We attempt, we succeed, we fail, we start again next season.  Remember, clean-up is not the only item on the menu in the fall.  We’re planting, we’re digging tender plants and storing them, we’re organizing our garages, basements and potting sheds, we’re painting our daughter’s room even though she really didn’t need it and why of all colors, white?  Well, you get the picture.  Clean up is only one of the possible tasks for the busy gardener in autumn.

The tweaks you make to your plan depend on who you are, what you wish to see in your garden, and whether you live under the auspices of an HOA (It’s not so satisfying to get a wicked letter from the clipboard police).

Every garden is different – as is every gardener.  Keep an open mind about what must be done and what mustn’t be and you may find a better rhythm to your gardening life.