Tidier times

Tools help organize autumn's cleanup chores in the garden

My son and I have a song that we sing when the family room looks like a toy tornado whipped through. It goes like this: “Clean it up (clap clap). Clean it up (clap clap). Put it away, put it away, put your things away.” We merrily get to work depositing all the cars, train parts and stuffed friends in the toy box. Before you know it, the family room looks good as new.

The garden also needs a dose of Mr. Clean this time of year.

With winter approaching, it’s tempting to huddle inside where it’s warm and forget all about the garden. But as leaves, acorns, pinecones and walnuts plummet from the trees and nestle into nooks and crannies in and around your flower beds, it’s time to grab the rake and get to work. Putting in some extra effort now will pay off in garden riches come spring.

Here are some tips for putting your garden to bed for the winter, organized by the tool best suited to each task.


If you don’t have a compost bin, autumn is the perfect time to rectify that because Mother Nature has provided us with the bones to get started: leaves, leaves, everywhere. Be careful not to include any diseased leaves in the pile, and by spring you should have a fertile, nutrient-rich mound of compost to spread on budding plants.

Even if you choose not to create a compost bin, raking is essential to a healthy garden and lawn. If they’re left on the lawn, grasses may spawn diseases and your lawn will turn brown and become matted down. If leaves are allowed to fester under your plants and in your beds, there’s a strong likelihood that pests such as asparagus beetles, slugs and snails will take up residence there, too. If that happens, not only will you have an abundance of slimy friends (because they will breed all winter), but they also will emerge earlier to invade your garden in spring.

“Cleaning up diseased, blight or leaves with funguses is particularly important,” says Vicki Pannell, an associate at Earl May Nursery & Garden Center, 3200 Iowa. “People just don’t realize how much that will affect the plant next year. With the crazy weather this year – with rain then heat, rain and then heat – it was just a big year for diseases and fungus.”

You’ll also want to turn your eyes to the limbs above for diseases. If you see dead branches or sickly leaves on trees, shrubs or perennials, snip them off. However, now is not the time to prune shrubs and trees that put on a spring show because you might stimulate new growth right before the harsh days of winter.

If you have young, thin-barked trees, wrap their trunks or paint them with white outdoor latex to prevent frost cracking, sunscald and damage from little critters trying to nibble at their bases. Be sure to remove the wrap when spring arrives. Also clean up around the base of fruit trees, including crabapples. Fallen fruits will attract unwanted pests and increase the likelihood of diseases.


You’ll want to dig up tender bulbs such as gladiolas, cannas, elephant ears, dahlias, tuberoses, caladiums and crocosmias. Set them in the sun to dry for a few days and then store them in a dark, arid place, such as a brown paper bag resting on shredded paper or hamster filling.

If you have overcrowded hostas and hardy geraniums, now would be an excellent time to divide them and disperse them throughout the garden.

You also can use the shovel to add organic matter (peat moss, manure or compost) to the soil. Adding these nutrients now will give you one less chore in the spring, and the layer of goodies will warm the soil sooner when March rolls around.

Mulching now is recommended as well. Azaleas, rhododendrons, strawberries, roses and any new or tender perennials like good winter protection with soil or mulch at their bases.

“Trimming back spent perennials and mulching now in order to keep the roots of plants warm is favorable for new growth in the springtime,” Pannel says.


Many perennials need to be trimmed down to about 4 inches from the ground. These include tall phlox, irises, lilies and peonies. Be selective, though, because perennial plants such as sedums and ornamental grasses bring fabulous texture to the winter garden if left alone, and flora like black-eyed Susans, echinacea and buddleia provide food for birds and some winter interest to boot.

(Speaking of birds don’t forget about our feathered friends. Fill up those bird feeders and baths; food and water are more scarce.)

While you’re snipping away, don’t neglect the water garden plants. They, too, need to be trimmed down to a few inches in height and then sunk to the lowest part of the water feature. You also would be wise to stop the flow on waterfalls to prevent cracking of thin rocks. Leave the water feature bubbling in its main basin.


Once you’ve completed the cleaning tasks in regards to plants, it’s time to address hardscapes and garden implements. Hoses and sprinklers, for instance, need to be disconnected from the house, drained, rolled up and stored in a dry place to ensure their performance in seasons to come. Removing umbrellas, cushions, pillows and hammocks from the outdoor elements is also recommended. Terra cotta, ceramic and clay pots do not hold up well when left out for the winter; they too should be stored in a dry place.

If you have an outdoor fire feature, prepare it by cleaning the chimney and removing all debris that has collected in the hearth.

Clean, sharpen and oil garden tools – like the rakes, shovels and shears you just used. You’ll be glad they’re clean and ready come spring.

Remove all fuel from gas-powered machines like lawn mowers, leaf blowers, edgers and chain saws. Lingering fuel can break down and cause damage over the winter. You don’t want to start the spring with repair bills.

So, don’t don those warm, fuzzy slippers just yet. There are still a few garden chores to be done. If you conquer them now, your garden will pay you back in the spring.