The lazy gardeners ultimate guide to Fall Clean Up Day

Examples of flower heads and stems that should be left as is during fall garden clean up.

Seed heads feed birds and dried, hollow stems shelter helpful bees over winter. Shot at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton, ON in October, 2014.

Is this the ultimate guide for the lazy gardener? If your ideal Fall Clean Up Day is to do as little as possible, you’ve come to the right place. But what if I told you that by doing far less, you’re actually helping your garden’s health and wildlife way more? That’s a real win-win. Here’s how:

Leave the leaves. Don’t bag them all for pick up. Instead, stash a pile of them in an unobtrusive corner of your garden. This is a mansion-in-the-making for a variety of critters including many insects that help gardeners by pollinating plants and preying on pests. Likely candidates for moving in include frogs, solitary bees, butterflies, and lady bugs.

Don’t bother raking. If you’ve got the means, one way to save time and effort is by investing in a mower that can mulch, side-discharge and bag. With this baby you can give your lawn one last mow before winter while simultaneously sucking up the leaves, mulching them and spitting the leaf bits and grass clippings back out onto your lawn. Instant lawn mulch. You can also bag the clippings and spread the leaf/grass mix into your flower beds. Yes, grass clippings are fine to use as bed mulch, adding a little hit of nitrogen to the soil.

Ignore those dead flowers and stems. Unless a particular flower is running rampant in your garden–not in a good way–leave dried seed heads as is. Not only do they offer food for birds, the heads themselves can shelter a variety of critters including butterflies (in their caterpillar stage). Don’t cut back dead flower stems that are naturally hollow, either. These types of stems make great winter hideaways for tunnel-nesting bees. And while you’re at it, or to be precise while you’re not at it, don’t bother putting away all those bamboo canes you used for plant supports either. They’re hollow, too, and make excellent winter homes for solitary bees. If you’re into making or buying your own bee condo, check out my post “Help for the hive-nots“.

And forget about collecting native flower seeds for planting next spring. Lots of pretty flowers native to your area produce seeds that need winter’s bite before they can break dormancy and start to germinate. For instance, Aquilegia, Blue False Indigo, and Purple Coneflower all need to be sown in late fall here in southern Ontario. So put down the little paper envelopes used for collecting seed and just let nature take its course. The birds will thank you, too.

Don’t finish covering up your entire bed with leaves or mulch. Ground nesting bees need direct access to soil to build their nests. So leave some bare patches in your garden bed. These bees don’t swarm and rarely sting so they’re good neighbours to have and they’ll repay your thoughtfulness by busily pollinating your garden next spring. And if you see what looks like a small ant hill but with a larger entrance, you’ve probably found an established ground nesting bee nest. Don’t sweep it clean. Back away from it on tip toe while quietly humming your favourite bedtime nursery song.

A moss covered log in a garden setting.

As a natural garden attraction, a dead log is not only a moss magnetic, it can shelter a variety of friendly, beneficial garden wildlife. Shot at Reford Gardens, Quebec, in late August, 2014.

Leave that abandoned bird’s nest. Next spring’s batch of nesting birds might not be the only critters that are OK with using someone else’s home. Bumble bees overwinter in them.

Don’t bother tossing that broken or cracked flower pot. Offer it up to a homeless toad. Find a quiet, shady spot to leave the pot turned upside down. Mr. Toad will need an entrance way so, if needed, knock a chip out of the pot’s lip big enough to accommodate frog traffic. After you’ve set up the pot, if you’re wondering what to do with the dead plants and the used potting soil, check out my post called “Life after dead potted plants“.

Leave that big dead branch, log or tree stump lying around. Some types of butterflies and important pollinator bees love to shelter behind peeling bark. Others critters, including some types of bees, love to tunnel into the wood or re-use a tunnel left from another critter.

So basically you’ll want to do as little as possible this fall to make your lovely garden not only healthier next spring, but alive with birds and beneficial insects. I recommend devoting half a day to doing the bare minimum (thus avoiding stink eye from the neighbours) followed by a long rest with a glass of wine on a lawn chair positioned nicely to enjoy the last warm rays of autumn’s long, low afternoon sunshine. The ultimate guide to fall clean up day in the garden can really be captured in just three words: less is more.

3 thoughts on “The lazy gardeners ultimate guide to Fall Clean Up Day

  1. Pingback: Ministry of the fence 7 gardening ideas for fighting climate change

  2. Love this! I thought I would also mention the lovely look of frost and snow on seedheads and grasses. It’s the secret to a winter wonderland.


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