The Fall Cleanup That Isn’t

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Easy Fall Garden Clean Up

Once upon a time, when temperatures dropped, and days grew shorter, I diligently cleaned up every little thing in the garden.

Leaves were swept into large piles, flung into the garbage, and toted away to a landfill somewhere. I’m not proud of that, but it was a different time. I also cut drooping flower stalks down to their nubbins and threw them into a compost pile. It was a tremendous amount of work during a time when I should have been rejoicing about fall color

Then, I learned better. Because I live in a fairly wooded part of Oklahoma known as the Cross Timbers, my land is filled with Quercus marilandica, blackjack oaks and Quercus stellata, post oaks. Some of these trees lose their leaves in fall while others lose theirs in the spring. Thick, oak leaves will smother grass and other plantings so I still rake them, but no more landfills for my leaves. Instead, I shred and place them in large piles, similar to these below, which decompose over winter.


Leaf mold is a rich source of humus and much too good to lose. I’m told you can also take wet leaves and put them in garbage bags with a shovel full of soil. After poking holes in the sides, you let the bags sit for a couple of years to break down. I am always in a hurry so this doesn’t seem fast enough for me. Plus, in my hot climate, the garbage bags might also break down and leach chemicals into the black gold you’re trying so hard to make. I’ll just shred mine and let them rot au naturel.

cutting back the rudbeckia

As for flower stalks gone to seed like echinaceas (coneflowers) and rudbeckias (black-eyed Susans), I deadhead them throughout summer to increase bloom, but come fall, I leave some seed heads on the plants for birds to eat and perch upon. Instead of employing pruners, a pair of scissors like these Herb and Veggie shears makes the job go faster.

Birds thank me by visiting throughout fall and winter. To give the garden a neat appearance and prevent seeds from taking over the entire space, I cut back some of the plants while leaving those nearest to the house intact where I can photograph and enjoy my feathered friends.


If you want to keep wildlife around in winter, you must provide water, shelter and food sources. Take that into consideration when cleaning up the garden. We have a lake at the bottom of our property so I empty my birdbaths and fountains putting away breakable ones until spring. If water sources aren’t naturally available, use bubblers and heaters, and birdbaths won’t freeze. Don’t forget to fill them every day and keep them clean.

I also lay a protective layer of mulch around perennials, shrubs and newly-planted trees. Mulch protects roots from freezing temperatures and prevents plants from heaving out of the ground during freeze/thaw cycles. Often, I use my shredded leaves which break down over winter and increase the earthworm population. In some areas, I apply wood mulch to prevent seed germination in spring.

As you can see from my garden cleanup which isn’t, I am concentrating on future growing seasons and the wildlife which visits throughout winter. How else would I stay entertained while cold winds blow?