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Eco-Answers from the Pros: How Clean Should Fall Cleanup Be?

As I begin fall cleanup in my gardens, what are your recommendations? Should I clean beds off, cutting foliage and remaining seed heads off? Are there some plants best cut off and others that are good to leave until spring? Also, should I remove leaves entirely from the ground around plants? I didn’t get all the leaves removed from beds last year and had a lot of damage to plant roots from either voles or moles.

I’ve never been a fan of fall “cleanup” because it implies there’s something messy and undesirable about the way our landscape habitats power-down for the season. The process is actually amazing and generous to seed-eaters, sheltering critters and over-wintering insects. For humans, standing vegetation offers something for all the senses throughout the dark and snowy months ahead. I find spring landscape preparation to be easier as most dried stalks pull right up without the repetitive muscle stress of pruning.

I’ll remove seed heads of the most prolific and aggressive plants, but I am still experimenting with how much seed to leave in place for wildlife. For myself, and any client who’s game, I leave native vegetation up for the winter and use some combination of leaf shredding, re-use in place, and leaf removal. The voles were really bad last year, so I am more mindful this year about monitoring the depth of leaf litter to remain.

At the commercial scale, it’s much harder to persuade clients and schedule this kind of approach so in those cases I do cut most herbaceous material down for “looks” and easier leaf removal. For many non-native perennials that may not have a good winter structure or high wildlife value, it’s a case-by-case basis for whether and how much to cut back.

~ Willow Cheeley, Owner, Circle E Landscape Design, Andover, MA

Every individual garden presents opportunities and challenges when it comes to fall clean up. As Gardeners we have been traditionally taught to cut and remove all standing vegetation from perennial borders in the fall and to rake and clear leaves from the landscape and dispose of them curbside before the first snowfall. However, there are principles associated with ecological land care that should be considered in seasonal garden care.

Here are a few alternatives you might consider:

  • Leave native perennial flower heads as forage for wildlife, allow seed to disperse naturally, and provide texture in the winter garden. Native grasses are often left for aesthetic interest over the winter, but all are monocots with hollow stems that can collect water and damage plant crowns in winter’s freeze and thaw.
  • As leaves fall consider using your electric mower to mulch leaves into the lawn and recycle on site. Mulching leaves will significantly increase organic material in soil over time. If you believe the density of chipped leaves will smother the lawn, consider raking and redistributing the material as a mulch in existing perennial beds. Leaves that have been chipped do not have the mobility in wind, will pack and insulate existing perennials, recycle organic material into soils, reduce annual weeds, and increase moisture holding capacity.

~ Miles Connors, Parterre Ecological, Cambridge, MA

In the past when we thought about Fall clean-ups it was about removing leaves and debris to make the gardens and surrounding lawns look neat and clean.

As we think more about the ecological aspects of our gardens and the interaction of the plant, insect and wildlife communities, along with the need for rich soil full of micro-organisms the general health of the environment around us , we realize that the fall is not about stripping the earth clean and that it is more about putting gardens gently to bed and to prepare them for winter.

Rather than stripping the landscape of all its leaves, we remove only the diseased leaves so the plants, soil, etc. stay healthy. We encourage leaving some leaves because:

  • Leaves can be used as mulch and help winterize the plants.
  • Leaves support the caterpillars that turn into butterflies and moths.
  • Leaves break down and feed the soil by providing microorganisms

We don’t dead head or cut down all the perennials, instead we leave those perennials that will go to seed and/or provide for the pollinators and wildlife. To assist with feeding the birds and other wildlife, we plant as many shrubs and trees with berries during the season to feed the birds and wildlife during the winter.

For those who still want to neaten the landscape, the approach may be to strike a balance. Keep enough leaves and plants to provide for the ecosystem and remove enough leaves to keep it somewhat neat.

~ Judith Lipson-Rubin, Moodscapes LLC, Belmont, MA

I look at disease susceptibility, location, and structure to decide what to take or leave. For anything that gets mushy or diseased like peonies, irises, phlox, and daylilies, I take down and clean up everything nearby – also roses (light prune, thorough clean up). I’m mindful of what may fall into walkways or interfere with the snow blower and take that down.

I leave up things that don’t seed in aggressively and hold their own in the snow like sedum, nepeta, sea holly, Joe Pye, asters, or salvia. I table my tall grasses (cutting Miscanthus to about 30″ and Panicums to 12″) because if I don’t, they end up blowing all over the neighborhood (somewhat conspicuously).

As for leaves, I’ve found that I get vole damage regardless of whether the leaves are left or not because they just go under the snow or mulch. I put repellent where I’ve had trouble in the past and keep an eye out during the winter for telltale signs. I generally do a thorough leaf clean-up in the front beds along the walkway just to keep it neat but wait until spring to do the back beds.

~ Kerry O’Kelly, Garden Dance Landscape Design, Andover, MA

ELA members have spent hundreds of hours learning the best ecological solutions to problems in the landscape. You can benefit from all that accumulated knowledge by posing a question to our experts. If you are stumped by a problem in your landscape or are looking for a second opinion on a potential solution, ask ELA’s Eco-Pros. Send your question to ela_new@verizon.net. And if you need additional help, refer to the listing of ELA Professionals.

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