We think of fall as the time to clean up the garden and get everything put away until spring but the truth is, tidying up can be harmful to your garden. All of the wildlife (great, small, and microscopic) that sustains life relies on old brambles and decaying plants for sustenance and habitat over the winter months. The bottom line is, protect material goods but leave the ‘mess’.
This is part of my Fall Garden Guide: perfect for setting priorities and letting the rest go.
Fall Clean Up Tips
To decrease the stress (and regrets), I have a priority system that ensures the really important stuff gets done and the nice-to-get-done-but-not-essential stuff is tended to only if time permits. Tasks commonly assigned to fall gardening that aren’t actually beneficial, such as removing old plant growth that the birds rely on for the winter, never make the list.
I also have it on good authority that the world will not end if I don’t plant early-blooming spring bulbs—as lovely as they are— but it will be a real waste if current, established plants perish simply because I failed to provide some cold weather protection.
You get the idea. All efforts are put into real pay-offs and the rest can wait.
I’ll show you how I set my tasks in order of urgency, and then do what I can. If winter invites itself to the party a little too early, at least the most important stuff done. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get the bulbs in the ground too.
The printable version of this list has everything on one handy page so be sure to get your free copy.
Fall Clean Up & Spring Prep Tips
Set Priorities and Let Go of the Rest
1. Protect the Stuff Winter can Break or Destroy
Give priority to protecting the plants, water features, tools, outdoor furniture, and garden art.
To me, older, established plants are the most valuable asset in my garden (not just monetarily but aesthetically).
Everything else is easier and less expensive to replace if damaged during the cold season.
- Empty, clean, and store planters.
- Put away cold-sensitive (breakable) garden art.
- Wash and store glass bird feeders.
- Clean, cover, and store outdoor furniture.
- Prepare burlap or plywood wind barriers for plants, shrubs, and roses, and trees susceptible to harsh winds and ice.
- Use rose collars to mulch base of roses.
- Add vinyl sheeting to covered patio. Great way to keep the winter weather out!
- Wash and preparewinter bird feeders, suet cages, and water sources.
- Protect shrubs, young trees, and bulbs from squirrels, rabbits, and deer.
Tools / Mower
- Clean, sharpen, and store tools.
Shed / Storage
- Organize shed for easy access to any supplies needed during the winter (shovels, backup pump for pond, outdoor lights…).
Water Features & Sources
- Empty and store garden hoses, fountains, rain barrels.
- Winterize pond. Clean out debris. Remove tropical plants. Clean and lower pump. Have backup pump and floating water heater ready.
- Clean out eaves troughs / gutters and downspouts. Ensure good water flow.
- Insulate and shut off outdoor faucets.
Tender Roots, Bulbs, and Plants
- Dig up & store tender bulbs including dahlia, caladium, cannas, gladiolas, elephant ears, and begonia tubers.
- Bring tropical and other tender plants inside (including non-hardy succulents, potted fig trees, and zonal geraniums).
- Take sweet potato vine cuttings and tomato cuttings and geranium cuttings for indoor growing.
Mulch, leaves, and cover crops protect plants and soil, help retain moisture, and gradually decompose further enriching the soil. Don’t get rid of them!
Some semi-hardy plants such as potted fig trees may also need special care.
- How to over-winter trees in containers (and other semi-hardy plants).
- How to over-winter geraniums (as houseplants or in storage).
Fall is the time to prune any dead, damaged, or diseased branches you may have missed in the summer. Others (like apple trees) need late-winter care, and the rest can wait until you’re tidying up in the spring.
Let Nature Be
Avoid the temptation to ‘clean up’ dead or decaying perennial growth and seed pods.
These provide essential food and habitat for all of the living things in our gardens including bees, butterflies, birds, other insects, and microbes.
Unless dangerous, diseased, pest-infested, or invasive, leave everything until late spring, and then make room for new growth.
2. Grow Fall and Winter Veggies
For most of us, growing vegetables in the fall and winter is not critical, but it’s sure nice.
One of the keys to successful winter food growing is to start the crops late summer or early fall so the roots are well-established before the cool weather sets in.
- Fall vegetable gardening 101
- How to grow vegetables in the winter
- Cold storage 101: food preservation tips
3. Give Your Spring Garden a Jump Start
There are many flower seeds and, of course, spring bulbs that require fall planting.
6+ Weeks Before Frost
- Sow fall veggies and herbs.
- Plant trees and shrubs. Also see When is it too late to plant trees in fall?
- Divide/move late-spring flowering perennials (coneflowers, hostas, black-eyed Susans). Leave the seed heads for the birds.
- Harvest fruit, nuts, & veggies.
Month Before Frost
- Plant flower seeds for spring, flowering bulbs, and quick-growing veggies plus garlic.
- Use winter-hardy tags to mark plants.
- Collect seeds. | When to collect seeds | How to save heirloom tomato seeds.
- Cut grass. Use mulched leaves and grass clippings to improve soil.
- Also keep bags of leaves to add to your compost pile (see Composting 101): you need lots of carbon/browns to balance your greens/nitrogen suppliers.
- 20 Flowering Bulbs to Plant in Fall
- 25 Flower Seeds to Sow in Fall
- Plants to Divide and Transplant in Fall
Phew! That’s lots to do but again, protect your wares and best plants and leave the rest if you run out of time.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
And don’t forget to have your winter compost bin ready to go.