I like everything tidy and in its place, and this goes for my garden, too. One of my favorite fall activities used to be a thorough fall garden clean-up. I’d clear out every spent plant out of my garden, preparing a blank canvas for the next season’s adventure.
That’s why last year when I heard Theresa Loe’s interview with Jessica Walliser on the Living Homegrown Podcast, entitled “Don’t Do Fall Garden Clean-Up,” I listened with part-curiosity and part-hesitation. I didn’t want to give up my fall-clean-up!
But I couldn’t shake the logic Jessica shared. And as an organic home gardener, I wanted to do everything I could to increase the health of my garden.
I researched further and decided I wanted to try implementing a version of a fall garden clean-up that fit my garden purposes.
6 Reasons to Skip a Wide-Scale Fall Garden Clean-Up
An organic home garden depends on beneficial insects to keep the population of plant-decimating pests in check.
If you want to avoid spraying harmful chemicals to control an aphid infestation, for example, you want aphid-hunters like ladybugs and lacewings to find a hospitable home in your garden.
The best way to keep beneficial insects like these in your garden is to provide them a shelter there. That way they can awake in the spring, hungry to eat the pests that plague your garden.
Bees and Butterflies
Native bees and butterflies also overwinter in your garden. Many take shelter in the ground underneath leaf litter, and others nestle in hollow stems left from your vegetables or herbs.
If you want plentiful pollinators in your garden next season — and you do! — make sure they have no trouble finding a winter rest destination.
I think we undervalue the role birds play in our gardens. It seems all I hear about is the destruction they do when they nab our ripe strawberries or eat our blueberries.
But birds also have a voracious appetite for pest insects. When those pests aren’t as plentiful over the winter, birds need other sources of food. This they will find in old seed pods and other leftover plants in your garden.
The highest density of nutrients can be found in the top layer of your soil — your topsoil. But that topsoil can quickly wash away in a rainstorm or in the melting of a snow cover. Keeping plants in your soil can help prevent erosion of these precious nutrients your plants will need next season.
Easier Spring Clean-Up
Spring is a busy time for a gardener, so it’s hard to imagine adding garden clean-up to that to-do list. But you’ll find an easier task in pulling out plants after they have begun to break down over the winter. And, in pulling up those plants, you’ll aerate the soil, preparing the way for the new crop. For a no-till garden like my own, this is a huge benefit.
Shelter for Chickens
This may not apply to everyone, but if you have chickens, consider letting them loose in the garden over the winter. They’ll fertilize it all winter, aerate the soil, and hunt for bugs and grubs.
But, anytime chickens free range, predators pose a threat. How do you allow your chickens to free range in your garden while staying as safe as possible?
Chickens’ native habitat is brush, and they quickly find shelter when threatened. For my hens that shelter comes from my leftover bean vines on my A-frame trellis, my tall okra plants, and my mess of black-eyed pea vines.
What Happened When I Skipped My Fall Garden Clean-Up
Now that I understood the “why” behind skipping a fall garden clean-up, I wanted to test it.
I didn’t leave everything; instead, I customized how I cleaned up my garden to suit my needs. I left the okra, pole beans, and black-eyed peas. But I cleaned out the tomatoes, squash/zucchini, and other crops. Since my fall garden extends into December, that plot remained in place.
Here are the changes I observed in my garden over that winter, spring, and summer:
The Chickens Did Use it as a Shelter
Many days I walked into my winter garden and found the hens dust-bathing underneath the okra or pecking the seeds from the leftover black-eyed pea pods. I realize we may have been a bit lucky not to have lost any of our hens, especially since hawks are plentiful in our area, but it seemed to work.
More than that, I had my best, healthiest, most productive garden season ever. Can I attribute all of this success to the work the chickens did in the garden fertilizing and aerating the soil for several months? Maybe not completely. But I’m convinced it helped!
The Plants Withered Naturally
I watched the plants decay slowly over a period of months. Their leaves shriveled and dropped, creating a natural mulch on my garden floor. Over time, with a healthy soil full of earthworms and microbial life, this plant debris naturally broke down to contribute to the health of the soil.
This also helped with the aesthetics. If you’re like me, you don’t want to look out at a garden full of dead plants, but with time those plants shrunk smaller and smaller where I didn’t even consider them an eyesore.
Spring Clean-Up Was a Breeze
A podcast listener sent me a photo of himself using a four-wheeler tied to his okra plant to heft the plant out of the soil one fall. I suppose that beats what my mom did years ago when she pulled so hard trying to get okra out in the fall that she slipped a disc in her neck.
Some plants like okra are too dangerous to pull out in the fall! But when I waited until the spring, I removed those same stealthy stalks with one hand. A gentle tug is all it took!
I found the same true with my pole beans. I use bailing twine for my pole beans to climb and it stays in the garden year after year. But that means I have to strip the vines from the twine each season. This task proved much, much simpler when I tackled it in the spring.
Though I am still working to identify insects in my garden, I found a robust population of ladybugs, lacewings, syrphid flies, and more in my garden this season. I also had very few troublesome pest problems in my garden overall.
I’m convinced that by combining my organic gardening practices with giving beneficial insects a home over the winter, I’ve been able to increase the beneficial insect population in my garden.
4 Tips to Selectively Clean Up Your Fall Garden
As I mentioned above, I did not leave everything in my garden over the winter. Nor did I clear it all out. For me, I found a balance and it worked well for me. I encourage you to consider your garden and your needs and do the same. Let these four tips get you started:
Dispose of Disease-Infested Plants
Many plant diseases overwinter in your soil just like insects do. And while in my experience those diseases will not clear up simply by using this practice, I’d prefer not to leave plants I know are infected, in my garden.
I suggest taking out all tomatoes that have shown signs of disease, most common of which is early blight. I also suggest pulling out squash, zucchini, and cucumber plants affected with mildew. You may have had issues with other diseases, so any plants affected should be thrown out (do not compost them!).
Dispose of Pest-Infested Plants
If you have had a persistent problem with a pest on a particular plant, dispose of it. Just like beneficial insects, pest insects also overwinter in the soil, and by leaving their host plants you’re providing an easy way for them to stay in your garden.
I haven’t had a squash bug issue in my garden in years, while they used feast on my squash plants. Though I can’t pinpoint the reason precisely, I made a practice of feeding my squash-bug infested plants to my hens at the height of their attack. Squash bugs in particular overwinter in mulch, so you might also remove the mulch from beds where you planted squash.
Pull Up Weeds
This is a personal preference, but I prefer to pull up the most invasive weeds in my garden. I want them gone before they produce seeds to proliferate next season.
Leave Remaining Plants
If a vegetable, fruit, or herb has shown no signs of disease or pest issue, and you don’t have to remove it to make room for a fall crop or to plant garlic, leave it in the garden. Let beneficial insects find their homes there. Let your hens take shelter under them. Let their foliage drop and add organic matter to your soil.
And observe like I did. Watch as nature unfolds around you from the winter through the summer, and you’ll see that an annual garden is more than a one-season venture. It’s a portal into a beautiful world where plants, insects, birds, and people work together in beautiful synergy.
The best part is — we get to reap the harvest! And hopefully with each passing year it gets better and better!
What are your thoughts on leaving some of the fall garden clean-up tasks to the spring?
Related post: 7 Fall Garden Tasks
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