December 02, 2022
Columns | Kendall County Now

Down the Garden Path: Guest columnist series – Follow nature’s calendar on fall cleanup

The Sauk Valley awoke to a silvery, frost-coated day Wednesday after water vapor rose from the warmer ground Tuesday before freezing overnight to trees, wires and shrubs.

As the days get shorter and cooler, there is an instinct in us Midwesteners to race to complete our outdoor cleanup, knowing how soon the cold weather will arrive. Garden plants are on their own schedules and at times might not match up to our schedules or our municipality’s yard waste pick up schedules. With a slight modification of your fall to-do list, you can get everything done in a way that benefits the health of your garden, and with less of a time crunch.

Many people spring into action after the first frost, but this is only the first step in the cycle of dormancy for plants. You still can use this early time to clean vegetable and annual flower beds, where lingering plant debris can promote disease. Perennials and shrubs still are very much alive, so be sure to continue to water as needed, although less than summer.

In the coming weeks, as perennial foliage dies, you may clip off stems 2 to 3 inches above the crown, if you like a tidy look in your beds. Leaving the dead stems stand has been shown to help chrysanthemums and other more tender perennials survive winter by capturing leaves to insulate the crown. Also, when left standing, some plants provide winter interest, become a home to beneficial insects, and offer seed heads that provide food for birds.

Regardless, the ground should not be left completely bare. A layer of mulch or leaf litter protects it from the harshness of winter and early spring thaws.

This also is a great time to put a final application of fertilizer on the lawn and install fencing to protect plants from animal damage.

The final touches should wait until the ground is frozen solid, usually well into December. At that point, plants are asleep. Roses can be buried under mulch and trees and shrubs protected against winter sunscald and wind damage. Remember, evergreens continue to grow over the winter, so be sure to give them water if snow is not available.

Following nature’s schedule might disrupt your old routine, but with it comes a sense of harmony. The slower pace might even give you enough time to enjoy autumn instead of stressing to get it all done by a specific date on the calendar.