Cleaning up our yards and gardens in preparation for winter is a yearly routine. The reality is that most of the fall cleanup chores – raking leaves, plucking dead flowers, cutting the grass short – are not good for the environment. Generally, when we clean up our gardens and yards in the fall, it’s not for the health of our plants, but rather for aesthetic reasons. Fall is not the time to strip your garden of nutrients and organic materials important natural life cycles but is rather a great time to foster renewal for the following spring. By changing your fall garden clean-up to be more sustainable, you can improve the health of your garden and of the environment altogether!
Leave the leaves. One of the best things you can do, is to clean-up less. Consider the health of the environment over aesthetics. Your garden may look cleaner if dried flower stems are removed, fallen leaves are raked, and spent flowers are plucked, however, insects will lose their winter homes and birds will have less to eat. Do not be afraid of housing “pests” – most insects do more good than harm for your garden – so leaving a few piles of fallen leaves for their winter homes will benefit your garden when spring arrives! Plus, if you leave organic matter in your yard to break down naturally, it will feed the soil and it will provide mulch for your garden (protecting perennials, vegetables, and grasses over the winter). For the organic matter (leaves, twigs, dead plants, etc) that you do decide to rid of, compost it instead of sending it to the landfill! However, any diseased plant material should be rid of in the garbage to prevent further spreads of plant diseases.
Harvest your last few fruits and vegetables. This will provide you will a sustainable food source for a few weeks. If you fear that your final harvest is too large and might go to waste, sharing is caring! Give excess garden produce to friends, family, or neighbours! Dead vegetable and fruit plants can be composted.
Protect your garden soil. This is a perfect time to use up that compost you have been creating all summer! By covering your garden soil with about 3 to 6 inches of compost, you will provide food throughout the winter for the microorganisms within the soil, making your garden more efficient next growing season (you can plant directly in this material next spring). Also, there should be no need to apply fertilizers to your garden or lawn in the autumn, simply because new growth will only be killed by cold weather!
Autumn is the perfect time to consider crop rotation. Make note of what was planted where. It is never a good idea to plant the same vegetables in the same place year after year, as it depletes the soil of the same nutrients year after year! Crop rotation will also prevent diseases in your future vegetable plants! For more information on how to rotate crops in the following spring, there are plenty of resources online, like this one!
The last cut for your lawn should be the same as the rest! It turns out that the traditional advice that the last cut before winter should be shorter than the rest is a myth! The last cut should be at the same height for the rest of the year – longer grass is healthier in both the summer and winter.
Maintain your garden features and make them last! Remove all stakes, supports, and garden pots and bring them indoors so that they can be reused next summer. For wooden structures, a wood preservative can be applied to be sure that it survives the cold. This is also a good time to wash out any bird feeders, bird baths, and bird boxes with hot water to avoid disease. Watering hoses and equipment should be drained and brought inside. Patio furniture should be covered or brought indoors so that it is not damaged. By protecting your garden features from the winter elements, you will be sure to make them last which will prevent unnecessary waste and needless resource usage to make more materials!
When the cold and frost rolls around, there is no need to stop composting! Freeze-thaw cycles will help break down materials. Even if your compost does completely freeze solid, it will thaw and resume decomposition in spring!
Sustainable fall clean-up may not come naturally to you at first, but as you consider the ecological aspects of your garden and the interactions between plant, insect, microorganism, and wildlife communities it should become easier with time! Let us realize that autumn is not about stripping the Earth clean but is rather about gently putting gardens to bed in preparation for winter.