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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Fall Garden Cleanup

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: November 4, 2014

person cleaning out garden

By November, many gardeners are a bit “battle weary” from performing gardening chores.Fighting insects and diseases as well as other problems throughout the growing season can leave one ready for a break. However, November is the time of year when, in the garden, we should follow Benjamin Franklin’s adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The latter takes the form of fall cleanup which can add significantly to the success of next year’s garden.

Garden cleanup does more than just improve the appearance of the garden during the (seemingly) lifeless months of winter. It is an important part of preparing the garden for the coming growing season by reducing the amount of disease inoculum and insect infestation that might be present. Prevention is the best cure for any plant-related problem. While disposing of the remnants of this year’s garden might not totally prevent problems from occurring next year, it is certain to lessen them.

Fall clean-up starts with removing all plant debris from the garden and disposing of it properly. Remaining vegetables (other than winter vegetables) and annuals should be pulled. Healthy plant material can be added to a compost pile; debris from diseased or insect infested plants should be discarded. When in doubt, discard plant material removed.

Herbaceous perennials can be cut back to their crowns any time after they have gone dormant. This usually occurs after the first hard freeze of the fall. Mulch those perennials that benefit from winter protection after several freezes have occurred and the soil has cooled. The same is true for winterizing roses.

Additionally, thoroughly weeding garden space in the fall will help to curb weed populations the following growing season. Careful hand or mechanical weeding is best, although non-selective herbicides such as glyphosate can be used on living weeds. However, keep in mind that post-emergence herbicides applied in cool or cold weather take longer to kill target weeds. Using rates at the high end of labeled recommendations is advised whenever the air temperature falls below 65o F.

Weeds that already have matured and set seed should be carefully removed from the garden. It has been estimated that one large pigweed can produced between 100,000 and 600,000 seeds. Carelessly pulling a weed and dragging it out of the garden is a good way to spread seeds and insure a large population of weeds next growing season. Instead, cut the weed and carefully place it in a large plastic bag before removing it from the garden.

Fall also is an ideal time to improve garden soil. The addition of compost, well-rotted manure or other forms of organic matter is more easily accomplished in the fall when the soil (generally) is more workable. For annual flower beds and vegetable gardens, incorporating several inches of well-decomposed organic matter is consider a “best management practice” for gardens. Limestone and other slowly soluble fertilizers can be incorporated at the same time, if called for by soil tests.

If you are fortunate enough to have a cold frame, hot bed or other “season extender”, clean it in the fall. A clean, “ready-to-go” cold frame is more likely to be used next spring than one that is overgrown with weeds and filled with debris. If you don’t have a season extender, consider building one as a winter project.

Also, turn off and frost proof irrigation systems. Drain hoses and store them out of the sun. Drip irrigation systems should be carefully removed and stored for use next year. Fall is a good time to clean and store garden tools. Metal surfaces should be free of soil and covered with a thin film of soil before storing. Tools with a cutting edge should be cleaned and sharpened in preparation for next year’s growing season.

Power garden equipment such as mowers and tillers can be winterized at this time as well. Check the owner’s manual for how this should be accomplished. If mechanical problems developed over the past gardening season, now is a good time to have them resolved. Garden equipment mechanics are much busier in the spring than in the fall.

Finally, think spring. While the image of this year’s garden is still vivid, start making plans for next year. What were the major problems/disappointments of the recently-completed growing season and how might they be prevented next year? Which varieties worked well and which did not? Do those that were disappointing deserve a second chance or is it time to try something new? Since time tends to dull the memory of most, sketch a planting plan for next year and start to form a gardening “to do” list. Remember, winter is only 90 days long.

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REVISED: September 29, 2015