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Minimalist Fall Maintenance (and Why You Should Try it)

One of the questions I get asked most often this time of year is how to handle and prepare the garden as we move towards winter. Should we cut things back? Leave them? What gets pruned? Do I add mulch? How about compost? When do I turn off the irrigation? It can feel like a daunting list of items to get through.

Autumn garden, perennials, grasses, flowers, autumn fall color.
Grasses and sedum "Autumn Joy" knit together beautifully for a late-season display in a garden I helped design in Putnam Valley, NY.

I've always done a mix of leaving some things unpruned (like ornamental grasses, perennials with nice seedheads, etc.) and cutting back "messier" spent perennials. With regards to leaves, I've usually left some of these as-is in the planting beds while clearing the rest to go into compost or into the rubbish. But this year I'm taking a decidedly hands-off and minimalist approach and want to encourage you to try it too.

Here are the two big reasons why.

1. There is still beauty in the wintertime garden.

Look more closely at the colors: shades of brown, gold, gray and black in the spent perennials and shrubs as well as the greens of the evergreens. While more monotone and subdued than during the primary growing season there is texture-galore, movement and structure. A coating of frost or layer of snow renders it downright magical. Imagine this garden pictured below (Vlinderhof, designed by Piet Oudolf) completely cut back – what a shame it would be to miss out on this end-of-season splendor!

Vlinderhof Garden designed by Piet Oudolf. Image by weit courtesy iStock.
Vlinderhof Garden designed by Piet Oudolf. Image by weit courtesy iStock.

2. Beneficial insects need habitat for overwintering.

The best way to provide this essential habitat? Leave your garden in-situ for the winter. Skip the cutbacks and, if possible, leave the leaves (if you have a mountain of leaves, go ahead and thin this out to a layer that's comparable to mulch to prevent from suffocating any plantings). This gives the perfect coverage for insects to nest and hibernate while also providing naturally built-in insulation to the plantings. The bonus is that when it breaks down it's the perfect nutritious compost for your beds.

Here's my checklist of tasks for fall garden maintenance.

  • Shut off the water to the hose bib(s).

  • Turn off the irrigation system and store timer(s) indoors.

  • Plant spring-flowering bulbs (this is what I'm planting this fall at Winterhill).

  • Add a light layer of compost to the planting beds. (I don't always do this, and it can be done in spring alternatively).

  • Add mulch to beds – I don't go too heavy on this especially if I'm leaving leaves in the bed. Pine bark mini nuggets are my preferred mulch.


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