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Time for Fall Garden Cleanup

by Don Janssen, UNL Extension Educator

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Preparing the gardens for winter is the last thing you need to do and in many ways the most important.

Flowers and vegetables whose foliage has begun to brown and shrivel should generally be removed before winter. Removing the spent foliage is an excellent way to reduce the chance for fungi and insect pests to over winter.

Herbaceous perennials should be cut back to just above the crown of the plant, the place where the stems join the roots. Annual plants should be completely removed from the garden. Plant refuse can be composted to recycle into organic matter to add to the garden soil next year.

Some plants, such as ornamental grasses, provide winter interest in their dried state. These plants can be left until later winter or early spring. Make sure to cut back the dead stems before the new foliage comes up.

Pruning of trees and shrubs is best left until late winter or spring for most plants. Pruning in fall will leave the cut stems vulnerable to further dieback at the cuts. Dead or damaged limbs can be removed any time.

Clean up of fallen tree leaves may be needed, especially around mature, large-leaved trees, such as maple, oak and sycamore. But autumn leaves can easily be turned into valuable, soil-enhancing organic matter.

Dry leaves can be plowed or tilled under in the vegetable or annual flower beds, in fall, to provide a source of organic matter. Shredding the leaves first will speed the breakdown. Be sure to mix the leaves into the soil, rather than leaving them on top through the winter.

Fall leaves also make great composting ingredients, especially when mixed with green trimmings and grass clippings. Again, the smaller the pieces, the faster they'll break down, so shred or chop dry leaves before adding them to the compost pile. If you don't have green trimmings or grass clippings, add a source of nitrogen to the leaves, such as commercial fertilizer.

Last, but not least, shredded leaves can be used as a winter mulch to protect tender perennials through the coming weather. Shredding the leaves will help prevent them from packing down as they get wet and smothering the plants that they are supposed to protect. To provide winter protection, apply a 3-6 inch layer of shredded leaves over the top of tender perennials after several hard freezes. The goal of winter mulch is to keep plants dormant through the winter. Generally, mulch should be applied around Thanksgiving.

(This resource was updated October 2007 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office

Contact Information

University of Nebraska-Lincoln
in Lancaster County
Web site:
444 Cherrycreek Road, Suite A,
Lincoln, NE 68528
| 402-441-7180