Fall Garden Cleanup

Question: What should I do to clean up my garden in the fall?

It is always good to plan ahead for upcoming gardening tasks. Doing a fall cleanup can prepare your home landscape for greater gardening success next year.

Depending on the kind of garden you have grown in the spring and summer, fall garden cleanup can be handled in a single weekend or over the course of several weeks. The University of Illinois Extension office has prepared a comprehensive list of garden chores that cover what may be needed for cleanup of gardens big and small. Which activities apply to your garden? Reviewing this list can help you in planning and completing them before the onset of winter.

  1. Bring in houseplants that have summered outdoors.
    • Bring them in when night temperatures consistently fall into the lower 50’s.
    • Try to avoid abrupt changes in light and temperature.
    • Check for insects prior to bringing them inside; spray the plant with plain water to wash off insect pests.
    • Re-pot if plant has outgrown its container.
    • Some plants that have grown vigorously outside may need some pruning.
  2. Clean up vegetable gardens and annual flowerbeds.
    • Harvest all usable vegetables and annual flowers before frost. If you are interested in extending your summer vegetable garden, review the Virginia’s Home Garden Vegetable Planting Guide from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
    • Leftover vegetable debris can be tilled into soil or placed into compost pile.
    • Clean up weeds as they can harbor disease inoculum and overwintering insects. Dispose of them by burning, bagging and throwing in the trash, or piling far away from the planting area or compost pile.
    • Add compost and other organic material to enrich the soil and improve its texture for next season. You may also consider a winter cover crop.
    • Mulch beds to prevent erosion during winter.
  3. Clean up perennial flowerbeds.
    • Remove weeds as described above.
    • After a couple of frosts, mulch the perennial bed.
    • Tops of plants can be cut back now or in early spring.
    • New perennials can be planted in fall and established perennials can be divided; these activities should be done in early fall (mid-September to mid-October) to allow time for plants to root before the soil cools.
  4. Tree and shrub maintenance:
    • Prune trees after they go dormant (lose their leaves) or in early spring.
    • Prune late summer and fall flowering shrubs after they go dormant.
    • DO NOT prune evergreens or spring-flowering shrubs in fall.
    • Fertilize trees and shrubs after they go dormant or in the spring.
    • Continue regular watering for newly established plantings until ground freezes.
  5. Miscellaneous:
    • Plant spring flowering bulbs in early fall (mid-September to mid-October).
    • Clean and sharpen garden tools so they will be ready for next season.
    • Properly store seeds, fertilizer, and other garden chemicals.
    • Drain and store garden hoses.
    • If you do not already have a compost pile, then consider composting as a method to deal with garden debris and autumn leaves.

You can plan for and make the most of these tasks in several ways:

• If you want to add spring flowering bulbs, mark areas that are already planted so you do not inadvertently dig up existing plantings.
• Local mulch suppliers can face heavy demand at this time of year, so make sure you have an adequate supply for all areas that need mulching.
• If you have deciduous trees, then you can use the leaves for mulch. Chop them up with your mower or a leaf shredder first. Whole leaves are less desirable as they can mat down and prevent moisture from reaching your plants, but they can go into the compost pile where they will break down over time.
• Fall is a great time to add perennials, shrubs, or trees and is coincidentally the time when many plant centers are eager to reduce their inventory. Watch for plant sales in your area; the selection will not be as varied as in the spring, but you can get some great values.

Fall in the garden can be a time of both endings and beginnings. The effort you put in during the cool days of fall will give you a head start when you feel the inevitable pull of the garden in spring.


“Cover Crops,” Cleve Campbell, The Garden Shed, PMG Association, 2015.

“Key Garden Tasks for Fall,” Candice Miller, Gardener’s Corner, University of Illinois Extension.

“Virginia’s Home Garden Vegetable Planting Guide: Recommended Planting Dates and Amounts to Plant,” Alex Hessler, Virginia Cooperative Extension.