Fall Clean Up in the Organic Sustainable Garden

Fall is a good time to start letting your garden be a little messy. I say that because gardens can be too clean, too tidy, and too neat for their own good.

fall clean up in the organic sustainable garden

Fall clean up is a good time to start letting your garden be a little messy. A layer of leaves rotting in the garden bed over the winter and early spring is natures beautifully thought out method of winter mulching and compost creation. And leaving some of those leaves makes fall clean up easier for you. One of Naturally Bubbly’s main rules for Green Living, Laughing, and Loving is that it is better to work with nature rather than to fight against it trying to dominate it. Organic gardening works with nature to improve the soil.

Let nature have its way sometimes and life will get better, I promise.


We have an expression in the gardening world, ‘put the garden to bed’ that means getting your flower garden ready for winter. Getting ready for winter means different things depending on where you live. Here in central Massachusetts, we were in USDA zone 5, but now, apparently, thanks for climate change, we are in zone 6a now.

Putting the garden to bed in zone 4, 5, and 6 for the winter still means making preparations to prevent certain kinds of winter damage to our plants. Plants can get damaged in the winter from extremely cold temps, lots of fluctuations of temperatures between night and day, bright sun, and wind.

Temperature fluctuations during winter can cause soil to expand and contract. This is called frost heaves and it can push plants up out of the ground exposing their crowns to hard freezes. It also can break planting pots that are left outside with soil in them.


Plant Hardiness

Heat Zone Map

Cold Hot Hardiness Map


fall clean up in the sustainable garden

We’ve already mentioned that it’s not sustainable to blow out or suck up all of the organic matter in your garden beds. That breaks one of the cardinal rules of organic gardening. Organic matter feeds the soil by providing food for soil microorganisms and enzymes. These little tiny bugs, as it were, are responsible for keeping our soil alive and nutritious. Without them the soil is dead.

There’s your organics lecture for the day.


fall clean up

Gradually I put my garden and lawn to bed.

  • Vegetable plants I remove completely once they have stopped producing and are killed off by frost. Best to be a little bit tidy around the veg beds to discourage overwintering produce pests. A note about vegetables in the potager garden or in dedicated beds. You should rotate your crops meaning don’t plant the same vegetable in the same spot year after year. It causes imbalances in the soil nutrients and encourages pests to move in. It’s not sustainable!
  • Collect dried zinnia blossoms filled with ripe zinnia seeds before they scatter all about, for next season.
  • Cutting down flower stalks is a selective process. Consider aesthetics and needs of wild birds and leave perennial stalks that can stand up through the winter weather, such as Astilbe, Monarda, Siberian Iris, Rudbeckia, Baptisia, Japanese Anemones, Ornamental Grasses, and other stalks that you think will provide seeds or perches for wildlife as well as making your winter garden more interesting. Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean our garden just stop existing. Shrubs, trees and perennial plants don’t just disappear in the winter. Gardens are to be enjoyed all year round. That is why we pay so much attention to plants with lovely fall foliage, beautiful bark, fascinating branching, and bright berries or pods.
  • Later, if they look brown, droopy, and sad, these can be pulled out and composted.
  • I especially like to leave plants in the winter garden that have food value for birds and beneficial insects. Sorry to say but birds love Ragweed seed so I leave one or two large Ragweed to go to seed. Monarch butterfly larvae only live on and eat the leaves of Milkweed so I leave Milkweed pods to scatter their seed far and wide. Let’s hope and pray that Monarch butterflies can survive what’s killing them now. Please don’t use Round-up unless you are desperate!
  • Pull out annual flowers with their root balls and tubers. I sometimes attempt to overwinter dahlia tubers in peat moss but fail trying to keep them from rotting.
  • Gently rake out excess organic matter from the garden bed, making sure to leave some leaves so that they can end up blowing around perennial crowns providing winter protection.
  • Pick dead leaves off of the top of shrubs and hedges
  • Sweep up your hardscape
  • Bring in or cover your patio furniture
  • Empty out your containers and store them inside your garage or basement
  • Pull out all bamboo stakes and store away for next season

Once you neaten up the landscape by removing all of the helter skelter perennial stalks and leaving upright solid looking stalks, raking up most of the leaves but not all, thoroughly raking out the lawn and sweeping off the hardscape, and doing some light ornamental pruning of your shrubs and small trees, you may want to go a bit further.


Tie vulnerable shrubs and hedges with heavy-duty natural color twine, or, if they are broadleaf evergreen shrubs in a sunny, windy spot you can wrap it with ‘shrub jackets’ made from landscape fabric or burlap.

Place a thin layer of salt marsh hay (if you can find it, we have it near the coast) over your garden beds to help keep the soil a constant temperature, not to keep it warm.

Put away flower pots and containers

Drain watering hoses and bring all of your watering equipment indoors


  • Do leave a layer of leaves in your garden beds.
  • Don’t blow or rake out all of the leaves from around your perennials.
  • Do remove leaves from the center of your shrubs.
  • Don’t cut down all of your flower stalks.
  • Do decide to leave the most decorative and sturdy perennial (and annual) dried flower stalks in place for the winter. They look beautiful and lovely all winter, and wild birds can eat the seeds and fruits, or perch on the stalks.
  • Don’t cut down ornamental grasses (unless they are going to muck up your driveway or walkway)
  • Do tie up ornamental grasses, if possible, to help them get through winter upright


  • Do rake most of the leaves, acorns, tree litter, etc. off your lawn
  • Do mow somewhat shorter than usual (try 2 inches)
  • Do spread compost over lawn (you can toss it around by the double handful if you don’t have a spreader)
  • CORE AERATION-Do plug aerate and lime (used pelletized lime it’s less caustic) if you didn’t do it in the spring
  • Do ‘overseed’ the lawn with good quality grass seed

Now your fall clean up is done and you are ready for winter!

Welcome to my website!

Julia has been practicing green cleaning for several years as the owner of As You Like It Home Cleaning and organic gardening for almost 20 years running Julia Houriet Custom Gardening. She studied landscape design at Radcliffe Seminars in Cambridge Massachusetts. Her expertise is gleaned from education and years of experience.

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