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By Lyn Chimera

With fall comes the traditional preparation of your garden for winter chores, raking, cutting back and cleaning up annuals, perennials, and lawn. There are definitely chores to be done in the fall but many are best kept until spring.

Let’s start with perennials. Many people cut back all the perennials in their garden but this is not always necessary. For many perennials, leaving the foliage intact serves as protection for the plant over the winter. The spent leaves actually form a protective crown which keeps the soil from temperature fluctuations when there isn’t a good snow cover, like last winter. They also trap leaves blowing by, which adds more protection. Some perennial leaves, like daylilies, are much easier to remove in the spring. They pull off easily, no pruners needed. Other perennials that have leaves that collapse and turn mushy in fall are best removed in fall. Also, iris leaves should be cut back as they could be home to borers.

If you have a perennial that seeds readily and you want to avoid its spread, cut off the seed heads and leave the rest of the plant for winter cover. Plants with thick stems like Joe-Pye-weed offer a home for insects and larva that winter over in the hollow stems.

It’s actually better for nature to leave some perennials intact. The plants serve as food and shelter for birds and insects over the winter. Leaving the seed heads up on plants like coneflowers, black eyed Susans, and daisies provides a great seed source for winter birds. It’s fun to watch the finches and chickadees come into the garden for a snack. Leaving perennials also provides necessary winter habitat for beneficial insects and their larva. Many winter over in the protective leaf litter.

There are exceptions to leaving plants intact, specifically any that have signs of disease or insect infestation. Those should be cut back and all the leaf litter carefully removed.

One of my favorite reasons to leave perennials intact over winter is it gives your gardens what’s called “winter interest.” When the snow falls and the seed heads have little snowcaps, it makes an otherwise barren winter garden interesting. It’s also a reminder that you have a garden, what grows there, and what will return in the spring.

Fall usually means leaves and lots of raking, but it doesn’t have to necessarily. Fallen leaves on garden beds are excellent winter mulch. Yes, they do have to be removed in the early spring but it’s one less chore to do in the fall and is good for the garden. Leaves on the lawn can be mulched as you mow and just left. The small, cut up leaf pieces will trickle down and feed the lawn. However, if you have extremely dense leaf cover, some of the mulched leaves can be put on the garden beds. You can also bag mulched leaves and save them to use as mulch in the spring. It’s a wonderful, free resource that is regularly thrown out. I don’t have enough leaves for my needs so I actually collect leaves (mulched only) in the fall. I always have large leaf bags and a rake in my car and when I see a nice pile of mulched leaves at the curb I gather them and store in the garage (I leave the bags open to prevent rot).

One thing that’s best to be done in fall is seeding or over seeding the lawn. Over seeding is a quick and effective way to fill in any bare spots in your lawn. With the cooler temperatures in fall, the seed germinates well and hopefully there will be rain to keep it moist. If your lawn needs to be fed, fall is the ideal time for that too. Fall fertilizing helps to develop strong root systems which makes for a healthier lawn next year. Try a natural fertilizer like compost; it’s good for the lawn and better for the environment.

Another chore that’s best done in fall is cleaning out pots of annuals. Remove the plant and old soil and scrub out the pot to remove the built up salts and dirt. Then, dip the container in a 10% bleach solution to kill off any bacteria or fungus that might have been in the soil. Annuals grown in the ground should also be removed as they collapse and turn into mush after a frost and are then messy to remove.

Relax and enjoy the beauty of fall!