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Begin Fall Clean-up Now for a happier spring

Michigan gardening writer, designer, and all-around advocate Janet Macunovich spoke at the most recent meeting of the Washtenaw County Master Gardener Alumni Association. I’ve attended several of her presentations, and I’m always impressed with her knowledge, energy and friendliness; even with 30 number of years in the field, she shares gardening information with an attitude of learning together, that is welcoming and not overwhelming. Her timely topic was “Art of Fall Garden Clean-up: Garden clean-up with an eye for winter beauty”. Macunovich emphasized perennial gardens, but many of the same principles apply to a garden with vegetables, herbs or annuals. I left the meeting inspired and ready to begin the fall clean task, which as Macunovich pointed out is a process, not a marathon.

One major point of her presentation was that gardeners should begin winterizing the garden as the leaves begin to fall– in other words, right now. Beginning the first steps of preparation are easiest when the garden is firm and organized as in fall, and not soggy and messy in the spring. Cutting and clearing plants in the fall also reduces the number of seeds left on the beds and therefore will lead to fewer weeds in the spring. She estimated that every hour spent cleaning up in the fall saves two hours of the same in the spring, and I can see how that number is totally right on. In the spring, weeds have the advantage; they put energy into growing as soon as possible, not when the weather is good enough for us to go out and work. Overall, fall clean up is much less stressful.

The first step is cutting plants down. How do you decide where to begin? Macunovich suggests that you take out what doesn’t look good to you personally. One point she underscored was the need to know your plants’ growth habits; sometimes it’s just a matter of becoming a more active observer in the garden. Does the plant regrow from the old growth or the crown? Since lavender, thyme, and evergreens grow off of old growth, don’t cut them down. If they need tidying up, give them a “hair cut” or trim instead.

Gardeners can leave sturdy plants like ornamental grasses or stonecrop sedum as points of interest in the garden. The choice is up to the individual gardener, based on what she or he likes. Some plants will attract birds, so blackberry lily or globe thistle can be left for that purpose.

Before clean-up begins, tools should be cleaned and sharpened. It’s also important to clean tools as you work, especially if you suspect issues with diseases. Paying attention to the plants’ health as you work will help you notice problems like pests or weeds too.

Macunovich sets a goal of being done with fall clean-up before the heaviest leaf fall. That way, leaves are on top of the garden as mulch and insulation, and they do not have to be cleared out of the way to get to the clean up. Like us, she’s a big proponent of covering the garden beds with a thick blanket of leaves before winter. Those leaves will break down over winter and add more organic matter to the soil.

Cleaning a whole garden as once can be a huge task, but beginning by spending 20 minutes at a time can make the chore much simpler. Taking the garden down in stages allows us to continue to enjoy the still lovely parts as we prepare for winter.

For more gardening information and advice, see GardenAtoZ, a really nice website put together by Janet Macunovich and Steve Nikkila. There, you can see wonderful pictures, subscribe to their newsletter, and benefit from their extensive gardening experience.

Posted in • Growing.