A fall manifesto: enjoy the mess


fall1Twice a year, at the beginning and end of the growing season, gardeners are exhorted to do various tasks that will—in spring—prepare the garden for the plantings to come, and—in fall—shut down the garden to protect it from the depredations of winter. Some of these jobs are necessary, but many—especially those having to do with “clean up”—are really just pandering to the American obsession with tidying up the outdoors.

I’ve always considered that in fall the work of gardening is mainly over for those, like me, in the northern zones. There’s no more tedious watering (it’s generally quite rainy), the weed explosion has already been dealt with, and pruning this late is not a good idea. I rarely cut down my spent perennials—in most cases their remains gently disappear into the ground as winter advances. Seedheads provide food for wildlife as well as free plants for gardeners—which can be pulled in the spring if necessary. As for the maple leaves that blanket my space from October through December, eventually they do need to be raked up and composted, but what’s the hurry?

Unlike many gardening columnists, who, assuming that gardeners are looking for something to do, try to find late season chores for them, I advise anyone with a garden that this is the time to enjoy its gradual decline. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, and, in many cases, the decline of a plant can be one of its most beautiful phases.

fall2It’s not just about trees, of course. Hydrangea flowers are famous for their late season colors, as the old-fashioned macrophylla hybrid shown here demonstrates. Hostas often turn lurid shades of chartreuse and yellow, while the leaves of other perennials, like the low-growing Ceratostigma, turn bright red.

Then there are the fall-flowering perennials. My latest fave is the sturdy native Eupatorium coelestinum (mistflower or hardy ageratum). Add a drift of unraked leaves, some slowly toppling tall seedheads of Joe Pye weed or Rudbeckia, and Indian summer temps, and you have a beautiful autumn refuge.

Don’t clean the garden in fall. Live in it.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. But sometimes that fall cleanup is about making sure bad bugs and diseases don’t have a cozy place to overwinter. Where I live, we rarely get cold enough, long enough to kill much of anything but the least cold-hardy plants. Cleaning up debris and composting it or putting it out with the green waste doesn’t just look good – it’s good for the plants. With the winds we get in winter, and the complete lack of snowcover to hold things down, unless you want things blowing around the yard, over into the neighbors’ yards, or off into the ether, you clean up your mess. It won’t compost over the winter here, unless it’s in an actual compost pile. Fortunately, we have an extended Fall that lasts almost to Christmas and gives us plenty of time to clean.

  2. I keep telling myself this. Not to let the tidy disease overcome me. But you either clean it up now or in late winter. The Garden phlox is taking over again, it needs divided and dumped on some beginning gardener who doesn’t know its power. Phlox is so pretty now, the pale lavender glows in the evening sun. (Mine have all reverted from the pure whites and bright pinks.) I dead head to prevent self seeding but they have blossoms and seeds on the same stalk. And the bumble bees love them. Does anything eat phlox seeds?

    I have to cut down the garden stuff so I can plant the bulbs. And put in the garlic and shallots. But I don’t have time to go crazy with tidiness, I’ve got grapes and tomatos to put by.

  3. I think I’ve got 25 goldfinches feeding on the agastache seeds, so I agree, don’t remove even if “unsightly.” Now, I do continue to feed the Blue Fortune variety as they don’t produce seeds and will flower until I stop fertilizing. You can almost not see the flowers for the bees.

    Here in the D.C. region, Oct, Nov. and Dec. are actually 10-20% drier than June, July, and August. I often do a lot of watering to trees and shrubs so they don’t suffer dessication stress in the months ahead. Many shrubs are now producing loads of berries for the birds this winter and I’ve noticed they will produce and plump up nicely if the ground is kept moist.

    I also continue to deadhead and fertilize as butterflies, moths, and bees are abundant. Yesterday, I purchased some extra lantana and zinnia plants for almost nothing and these will provide extra nectar and pollen until November. Sure, they are not native and I have many spent native plants, but I think the insects like some “chocolate cake” as Pat Sutton calls it, to keep them hanging around and laying eggs.

    Withe respect to vegetables, tomatoes, my favorite, are heavy feeders and they continue to produce for me, often until November, will a little extra fertilization.

    So, personally, I like the “work” the fall garden can offer.

    • Marcia, I just got home from Cape May where I went to take Pat Sutton’s Monarch Garden Tour. Fabulous – post to come. BUt anyway, I saw “chocolate cake” in her hand-out and wondered about it, though I forgot to ask.

  4. I find I need to clean up in fall for my own peace of mind. I’m just too bloody busy come spring to have to do a massive cleanup. It’s a time-saver later to do it now.

  5. I pick and choose the cleanup. Tomato debris and other things that might be disease or bad-bug laden (fourlined plant bug can get nasty around my gardens) get cleaned up. And things that reseed too abundently – like the anise hyssop – are deadheaded. But anything the birds can eat are left. Iris get cleaned up, for instance, after I lost a lot to the borers. But grasses and seedbearing forbs are allowed to remain.
    I noticed some of my goldenrod today absolutely LOADED with the littler bumblebees, 10-12 on each head of flowers. No flower is mowed down while there’s still a pollinator feeding, that’s for sure!

  6. Yeah, I agree with other commenters, the general practice of “fall cleanup to prevent overwintering pests” generally overrules the otherwise-logical (and natural) desire to leave things as-is. Throw in need to rotate your veggie crops, maybe divide/relocate your daffodils, etc….and there you go.

    And the other thing…I generally compost all my leaves and grass clippings, so raking all this stuff is important to make next year’s compost.

  7. Great article. Thanks!
    We have a 2,000-square-foot perennial garden in our front yard in Connecticut. Every fall, I’d run into the same dilemma: To clean or not to clean? At first, I’d clean up every fall, figuring it was good culture and cut down on diseases.
    But I always felt guilty about taking all that seed away from the birds in winter.
    For the last few years, I’ve been letting it go. Come late winter, I scythe the stalks when the ground is still frozen (and the stalks are soft) and then compost them. Our beebalm gets mildew — but it always did! I haven’t noticed any increase in diseases.
    Maybe that’s because the bulk of our flowers are natives? (Beebalm, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, Joe Pye weed, cardinal flower, etc.) From what I understand, they tend to be hardier and more resistant to problems.
    I can definitely say the birds are happier. Plus, stands of beebalm have started springing up in the “meadow” along the borders of our property. A thank-you from the birds?
    Thanks for your “manifesto,” Elizabeth. You’ve helped to clarify my thinking!

  8. Hooray for the sprawl of nature! It is refreshing to find someone else enjoying the beauty of change instead of the constant yearning for photoshop perfect blooms at their peak. I also have hydrangeas revealing new colors as they dry, and hostas that are not falling quietly from summer to autumn.
    I do clean up diseased foliage, leaving much of the rest. The birds enjoy the seeds, and ground-nesting solitary bees enjoy the leaf piles. They are good-natured (and half-hibernating) if I accidentally find one in the autumn – I just scatter more leaves & allow my bee friends to resume their seasonal rest.
    If I had spare time I’d help w/local ivy-removal efforts. Truly a cleanup project that’s always beneficial – except to rats, who probably dislike having their cover removed. Too bad for them.

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