Fall garden tasks are a kind of last hoorah for Northern gardeners. Working outside on a crisp fall day is indeed a beautiful way to say farewell to the garden for the season. As you reach for your rake this year, consider a more relaxed approach to fall cleanup. There are marked benefits to leaving organic matter in your yard’s ecosystem.
We’re not the only ones letting you off the hook as far as fall cleanup. Xerces Society recommends leaving the leaves to provide habitat for beneficial insects and invertebrates that are in critical need of protection. Many organizations, including the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, recommend leaving perennials standing for the winter.
In light of this, you might be wondering what you can do to prepare your landscape for the end of the season. Here’s what you can do in your garden and still support wildlife.
Fall Garden Tasks
Wrap Trees Protect young trees from animal damage and sun scald with a white plastic tree wrap. Fruit trees, maples, and birch are especially prone to sun scald and critter damage, so make sure to protect them. Wrap trees until they are 6 inches in diameter and the bark is mature and rough.
Water Water new plantings until the ground is frozen. Anything planted this season as well as plants prone to winter burn benefit from moist soil going in to winter.
Top Up Mulch Mulch insulates the roots of your plants and helps prevent them from heaving out of the ground. Moist soil that is protected from wild temperature fluctuations is the most hospitable winter home for new plantings. Wood mulch and fallen leaves are perfect for creating this environment. Best applied on top of perennials after the ground is frozen and pulled aside in spring.
Clean Up Frozen Annuals and Veggies Remove expired vegetable plants to discourage overwintering disease. Cover any bare ground left behind with compost, mulch, leaves, or straw to improve soil, protect pollinators, and prevent erosion. Wildlife tip: annual flowers that have gone to seed like zinnias and sunflowers provide winter food for birds, so leave those along with perennials.
Rake Yes, there might still be a bit of raking. If you want to get thick layers of leaves off of the lawn, add them to compost or use them as mulch in garden beds. Pollinator tip: gently handle leaves (instead of chopping them) and leave them somewhere in the garden to support pollinators that use them as cozy winter habitat. An exception is leaves and material from diseased plants- those should be removed.
Reap the Benefits
Bottom line: when you maintain your yard with pollinators and wildlife in mind, you create less waste and build soil rich in organic matter. Better soil means lush gardens and healthy plants. You might even notice butterflies in your yard earlier next year, and what could be better than that?