woman in a sweater and a black beret by a lake in autumn

Pull out the sweaters and mull the wine—it’s fall cleanup time

When the air is as crisp as a freshly picked apple, it’s time to put your yard to sleep. While wrapping up your gardening activities may feel a little sad, it’s also a great time to contemplate what went well this year and what you would like to do more of, less of, or differently next year. We’ve got your to-do list here, and guess what? It’s not totally drudgery (especially if done with mulled wine).

Where do I start?

The good news is, horticulturists aren’t recommending the hard slash and rake method anymore. While you should still clean up a bit, the name of the game now is to leave a little debris here and there for the bees, butterflies, and ladybugs to find a place to winter over. We want them in the spring, right?

The following list is not in any particular order, and is by no means comprehensive, but a to-do list to consider when you feel overwhelmed by the shorter days. Do what you have the time and energy for, and soon you’ll look out over a clean yard and think, “Okay, winter—bring it on!”

The lawn

Fall is the perfect season to fertilize, aerate, and cut your lawn short. After a long, hot summer, the grass in your lawn needs to rest and recover. Fertilizer gives the turf below a good shot of much-needed nitrogen and potassium and helps grass keep growing and storing nutrients for the winter.

Did you love your lawn a little too much this summer? Barbecues and birthday parties can compact the soil in which your grass is trying to grow. Aeration opens up the soil so your grass roots can get more water and nutrients. Do it yourself or call in a service.

If you decide to aerate your lawn yourself, start by saturating it with water for a couple of days before. Then decide if you want to rent a motorized spike aerator by the hour from a hardware store, invest in an inexpensive rolling garden aerator that you push, or, especially if you have a small a lawn, tramp around on your lawn with lawn aerator shoes. Leave the soil cores to break down on your lawn and throw down some extra lawn seed for good measure.

Lastly, just before the snow flies, give your grass one last mow on a fairly close setting. This gives your grass some air and reduces the chances of mold developing in the fall rains and winter snows. And of course, be sure to disconnect hoses and have a service blow out your sprinkler system if you have one.

Leaves and weeds

Too many leaves will suffocate your lawn, so you will want to rake most of them up and pull the weeds in your grass and in your flower and vegetable gardens. Weeds should come up easier these days as they are towards the end of their life cycle and not hanging on to the earth as hard as they do when they are trying to grow. If you have a compost bin, everything can go there to break down for next spring’s planting mixes. You can also save some leaves to mulch your plants, shrubs and trees.

black and white photo of dirty gardening tools

Plants and flowers

If you weren’t so great about deadheading your flowers this year, now is the time to do it. Get out your pruning shears and snip off the dead flowers on your annuals and perennials. And while you’re at it, divide and separate the bulbs that are no longer flowering. The more room they have to grow in the spring, the more flowers you will have. Trim up the roses, clean up their beds, and put down some fresh mulch. And, of course, now is the time to plant your fall bulbs, shrubs, and trees. Doing it now gives them plenty of time to establish a root system that will flourish in the spring.

Bushes, shrubs, and trees

Time to bring out the big guns (by which we mean branch cutters). While you shouldn’t cut your established bushes and shrubs to the ground, a light haircut will help them save energy in the winter and flourish in the spring. The same holds true for your trees. If you notice any branches that might present danger under heavy snow or high winds, be sure to remove them or have a professional do it for you.

Fruit and vegetable gardens

Time for the final harvest! Gather those frost-sensitive vegetables as soon as you hear the temperatures will be dropping—or when you get sick of the squirrels digging in them.

And speaking of squirrels, they are busy now, aren’t they? Just one little bite out of all your apples, pears, blackberries, and grapes. Time to get those inside while you still have them! Bake the pies, brew the cider, and ferment the wine!

Vegetables that should be fit for family consumption this time of year are: beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chicory, leeks, okra, and parsnips. And in some places, cranberries, dates, and figs are also ready for your favorite fall recipes. Speaking of favorite fall recipes—don’t forget the pumpkins and winter squash. Roasted veggies and warm soup coming up!

Tilling your vegetable garden is also optional now according to horticulturists. Some experts say you should do it because you mix in organic matter (your dead plants and veggies that didn’t make it to the kitchen), aerate the soil, kill weeds, and make it easier to plant in the spring. While all of these things are true, many experts are saying tilling isn’t as important as we once thought. The organic matter is in there already as plant roots; worms and beetles do a fine job of aerating the soil; and weeds will still grow in the spring as their seeds are deep in the ground. Unless the soil in your area is sandy or hard-packed clay, you get to skip it if you want to!

Garden tools

Lastly, be sure to clean and store your garden tools. You don’t want a rusty shovel or rake when you are ready to start your spring gardening projects!

Start by spraying off your tools that go into the soil (like spades, rakes, hoes, and trowels) with your garden hose using a nozzle with as much pressure as possible. After drying them, oil them to ward off the rust. Believe it or not, motor oil mixed with kerosene works just as well as anything. As far as your sharp tools that don’t go into the soil go, wipe them down with a cloth. If any of them have tree sap on them, use a bit of paint thinner to remove the sticky goo. Axes, pruning shears, and knives got dull? You can sharpen them yourself with a hand file, or take them with you to the waning farmer’s market. You can usually find someone there who will do it for you.

pumpkin pie and mulled wine

Thank your garden

The last thing is to do is to thank your garden for the wonderful spring and summer it gave you. Whether you are a do-it-yourselfer or you hire help to keep your outside world looking beautiful, the things that grew in your garden this year hopefully gave you pleasure. (We are focusing on the peonies and dahlias, not the weeds and the pests.) So pour yourself a glass of wine, slice a piece of pumpkin pie, and jot down your thoughts for next year!