Fall Garden Clean-Up: The Basics

It's almost time for fall garden clean-up.

It’s almost time for fall garden clean-up.

Fall garden clean-up isn’t my favorite chore, but it’s something that can be done in a bare-minimum way or more thoroughly. I know some gardeners like to cut down every perennial and pull every annual and practically vacuum their beds, but I think it’s a good idea to leave some perennials untouched for winter interest.

Here’s a basic list for getting your garden ready for fall:

  • Clean out the vegetable garden by removing spent plant materials. Compost healthy materials but toss in the garbage any diseased materials unless you have a compost pile that gets fairly hot. If you still have greens or other plants that are producing, congratulate yourself and let those stand.
  • Mow the grass one last time once it seems to have stopped growing. Some websites advise cutting the grass much shorter for the winter, but others recommend keeping it at a 3 inch height. The U of M sides with the leave it the same height as before crowd, saying that grass that is too short can become stressed from the buzz cut. Fall fertilizer is not necessary.
  • Cut back some perennials. Some perennials benefit from being cut back in the fall. It reduces the chance of diseases forming and makes spring clean up easier and less messy. (Nothing is worse than a wilted, soggy hosta.) Other perennials do just fine left up through the winter and can be cut back in spring.
  • Water. It’s especially important to water any new plantings, whether trees, shrubs or perennials. This will guarantee they go into the winter in the best health possible.
  • Rake leaves. If you have relatively few leaves and a mulching mower, you can also chop them up with the mower and leave them on the lawn as fertilizer. You may also want to run a mower over the leaves a few times, then spread the leaves on perennial beds for mulch and nutrients.
  • Clean out and scrub containers. By this time, your container plants are probably pretty wilted. Dump the plants and soil on the compost pile and give the pots a good scrub with a wire brush before putting them away for the winter.
  • Clean your tools, too. While you’re in a cleaning mood, get out your shovels, trowels, pruners and other tools and give them a good cleaning. Regular maintenance will help your tools last for years and years. Here’s a good video on how to clean your tools.

Once you’ve got those chores done, head into the house, make a hot beverage (or grab a cold one, if that’s your preference) and settle in for winter.


  1. Nancy Oestreich on October 25, 2021 at 4:03 pm

    Is it beneficial to fertilize perennials now for winter?
    If so, which fertilizers would be best for the following:
    acid for hydrangeas, rhododendrons, junipers, Siberian iris, boxwood?
    non-acid for peonies, asters, beebalm, garden iris, lilacs, daylilies?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on October 26, 2021 at 5:42 pm

      It’s best not to fertilize in the fall. It stimulates the plant to grow and you want it to go dormant at this point.

  2. […] now than in the spring, but generally gardeners are less rushed in fall. I've been following the not-so-much cleanup routine for several years and find that not only is it good for wildlife and insects, it's beneficial to […]

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