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Fall leaves and garden debris being removed from garden.
Cleaning up the garden in the fall gives gardeners a head start in the spring. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Don’t forget fall cleanup in the garden

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Media Contact: Trisha Gedon | Sr. Communications Specialist | 405-744-3625 |

With the arrival of colder weather, gardeners should spend some time tidying up their garden spaces in the offseason.

What stays in the garden and what goes? Casey Hentges, Oklahoma State University Extension specialist and host of OSU Agriculture’s “Oklahoma Gardening” television show, said most annuals and tropical plants should be pulled up from the garden.

“Vegetable plants such as tomatoes and peppers can be removed, roots and all,” Hentges said. “When removing the plants, try to leave as much soil as possible. If gardeners didn’t experience any pest or disease problems, this plant material can be added to a compost pile. Nice, rich compost will be a great addition to your garden next spring.”

However, if pest and/or disease issues occurred, those plants should be removed and thrown away. They are not good candidates for the compost pile because that gives the pests a place to overwinter and become a problem again next year.

Laura Payne, OSU Extension horticulture educator in Payne County, said gardeners should consider leaving some plant material to serve as habitat for beneficial insects during the cold, winter months.

“If gardeners remove everything from the garden, that takes away shelter and a place to overwinter for many beneficial insects,” Payne said. “Leave some plants in the garden for shelter and those can then be cleaned up in the spring. A good rule of thumb is to remove annuals, but leave perennials unless they are diseased, dead or damaged from insect infestation.”

If the garden contains plants that reseed, leave them in place to start over in the spring if desired.

“If it’s more of a weed or nuisance plant, pull it out carefully and bag it, so the seeds don’t get distributed,” Payne said. “Throw these plant materials in the trash. Gardeners don’t want to put them in the compost pile.”

Trees and shrubs

In addition to cleaning up plant material, some may want to prune trees and shrubs. While pruning can be done any time of the year, different plants have recommended pruning times, Payne said.

“Pruning should be done when it results in the least damage to the plant. Continual improper pruning results in damaged or weakened plants,” she said. “The best time to prune plants is during late winter or early spring before growth begins. However, deciduous trees can be pruned now. The least desirable time is immediately after new growth develops in the spring.”

Grasses and leaves

Ornamental grasses are popular plants in the landscape, but what should gardeners do with them in the winter?

Hentges said both annual and perennial grasses should be left in the garden for now.

“Annual ornamental grasses can be removed, or if a gardener chooses, can remain until late winter and then be dug up and removed,” she said. “Leave perennial grasses in place and plan to trim them back in late winter just before new growth emerges. The great thing about ornamental grasses is gardeners get a fourth season out of them due to the visual interest and movement they provide in a winter landscape.”

Perennial grasses like monkey grass should remain in place and then mowed in the spring to prepare for new growth.

Hentges also suggests raking leaves from cool-season lawns, such as fescue; the grass is still actively growing, and removing the leaves helps ensure the grass receives as much sunlight as possible over the winter.

Payne said the fall season is a good time to do a soil test. Learning what the soil may lack now gives gardeners plenty of time to prepare for spring planting by amending the soil with organic material. Gardeners can layer about an inch of compost on top of the soil. A thin layer of leaves also works, but be careful not to pile them too high. A thick layer of leaves can impede rainfall from reaching the soil.

General gardening maintenance

  • Disconnect the water hose from the spigot and drain the hose. Store it in the garage or garden shed. Keep in mind that evergreen plants will need to be watered periodically.
  • Clean and sharpen garden tools.
  • Gas-powered garden tools should run until they’re out of fuel. If fuel remains in the tank, add a stabilizer.
  • Remove soil from planters. If it is a wet winter, the soil can freeze, expand and possibly crack the planter.
  • Planters containing hardy plants that will remain outside can be wrapped in bubble wrap to add a layer of insulation to help protect the roots of the plant.
  • Cover water gardens with netting to help keep out debris throughout the winter.
  • Seal cracks in doors and windows in the home to prevent insects from coming inside.

OSU Extension offers additional gardening information.

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