Seasonal Yard Clean up - Why I don't do much Fall Yard Clean up

I recall a couple years ago in the early fall going out to the municipal compost pile with my Dad to drop some dried leaves, grass and spruce cones off.  While there I started looking around, as one does when they go to any dump, and noticed the volume of flowers that had been dumped off.  They were still in full bloom but despite this fact, had been yanked out because folks were in full on fall yard clean up.  Granted there could be other reasons I suppose, but given that the majority of people do a fall yard clean up, it stood to reason that these flowers were yanked and dumped was because of fall yard clean up.  I recall saying to my Dad how this concept just doesn't make sense to me.  Since that time, I have explored, researched and pondered this phenomenon in an attempt to figure if there was something I was missing.  Which time of year is best?


Fall Yard Clean up

At the end of the gardening season, it is generally recommended by most that gardens and flower gardens be removed of all annuals, summer growth on perennial flowers be removed, tree and shrubs be trimmed, leaves be raked and removed, etc. prior to the onset of winter weather.  At it's core, I struggle with this because where we live we have cold temperatures and/or snow cover sometimes from October till March or April, over half the year.  So I immediately have to wonder why would a person not want to enjoy the flowers or harvest from the garden as long as possible even if it is just a few weeks or days. Granted, if one is going to do a full scale fall garden clean up, doing it while the weather is nicer is a whole lot more pleasant.  I get that.

But the main reason I found in support of doing a fall yard clean up is that it saves time in the spring.  And although this may be true, depending on how busy a person's fall is, to me it is a case of potato or pa-tat-o.  But in reality, the time from snow melt till regrowth happens is usually a couple weeks which affords a person the time to do a yard clean up prior to the main push of garden season.

As you have probably gathered, I am not a believer in cleaning up all the gardens and flower beds in the fall save for putting away hoses, pumps, tools, etc..  Some years though, there are a few reasons why I will do a targeted fall yard clean up.

1.Remove diseased plant material - during the growing season some plants can develop diseases, blights or just suffer from non beneficial insect pressure.  I have had instances of tomato blight and to prevent it's spread in the following year, I will remove the plant material from the garden.  As I explored in DIY Floating Row Cover Tunnel for Cabbage Root Maggot and Cabbage Moth Control I do battle the cabbage root maggot.  Part of the life cycle of the cabbage root maggot is that they over winter in debris in the garden and so removal of the majority of the leaf material is part of the control.  However, I leave the stalks in place after harvesting and gather the leaf material to feed to the chickens right up until the snow flies which therefore helps to remove habitat for the root maggot larvae;

2. Removal of plants that will not over winter - I grow a number of herbs and flowers that will not make the winter if left in the ground and like to bring in a couple peppers and/or tomato plants for overwinter growing indoors. However, as most of these are frost tender, they are brought in usually the day before the scheduled first frost of the year.  I also like flowers like gladiolas and dahlia's but due to non ideal storage conditions and the fact I want to enjoy them late into the growing season, I leave them in the ground as long as possible, digging them out usually shortly after a killing frost;

Fall Yard Cleanup - Indoor garden

3.  Remove seed heads of invasive plants and weeds - some plants produce thousands of seeds and have tremendous germination.  For these types of plants, I will sometimes remove the seed heads to prevent being over run by them.  I quite like Delphinium, but they are one flower that immediately comes to mind that I always remove the seed head on.  But also, sometimes due to lack of time, the garden gets away on me and I like to remove the seed heads from the grass and weeds to prevent a huge flush of weeds the next years.  My Food Forest Orchard Garden was a good example.  In 2023, because the squash I planted took over and spread everywhere, which is what I wanted, I could not keep the grass mowed between the beds and so a clean up was done to prevent the weed seeds from maturing and spreading;

Fall Yard Cleanup - Food forest Orchard Garden cleanup

4.  Removing pots on the veranda - I do put a number of pots of flowers on the veranda in the spring, some of which I over winter indoors.  Prior to the first frost I will bring the plants I want to save into the house, but the rest are left out.  For those that are left out, I will continue to water and let them bloom until they are killed by the killing frost.  At that time, I clean off the deck to make snow removal easier.  If they are bigger pots, I will simply pull the plant material so that I can reuse the soil the following year.  For the smaller pots, which are typically root bound, I will dump the whole thing into my garden.

Being that my fall's are typically fairly full with canning, butchering and finishing projects I did not get done in the summer and fall, although I may do minimal fall yard clean up, the majority of the gardens and flower beds are left till spring.  There are so many reasons to leave clean up till spring it is hard to convince myself that a fall yard clean up is the way to go.


Spring Yard Clean up

Most years after the snow melts there is reasonable weather prior to the onslaught of gardening season.  During this time, there is plenty of time to tackle the spring yard clean up and the many spring tasks, as I explored in It's Spring on the Homestead - And About To Get Busy, prior to planting the garden.  But from my perspective, as a person who is not worried about getting their garden in by the end of May, as most gardeners are in these parts, I have some extra time to get the spring yard clean up completed.

Although one could discuss at length whether a spring yard clean up or a fall yard clean up is better from a time perspective, it really boils down to personal circumstances.  The basic time requirement will be about the same. However, for me there are a number of additional reasons why I prefer to leave the majority of the gardens and flower beds to be cleaned in the spring.

1.Seed saving - If seed saving is something you do or would like to do, the extra time spent on the plants in the fall for the seeds to develop can be beneficial.  Granted, to prevent loosing seeds during the winter, a fall harvest may be better. But as some seeds need a cold period to germinate, allowing them to remain on the plants will stratify them so that they will germinate easier for that growing season.  Spring seed saving also lets me harvest seeds for starting plants I forgot to buy, as sometimes happens.  Mullein is a good example - when I started growing it years back I went to start it and realized I had no seeds to do so.  Then I remembered I had plants that had seed heads I could harvest.  They produce a lot of seeds and so I had enough for a couple years;

Fall yard cleanup - Mullein seed heads

2.  Feed for wildlife - whether it be underdeveloped fruit or seed heads of the various plants in the garden and flowerbeds, they provide a winter source of food for the rodents, small mammals and birds.  I watched many a squirrel and birds feeding off my garden during the late fall and winter months;

3.  Provides organic matter for the garden - as a lot of gardens are lacking in organic matter, leaving the material on the garden, allowing it to dry during the fall and winter and then mowing the material down in the spring to chop it up and then incorporating into the soil,  I can help to increase organic matter in the soil.  Coupled with the above ground organic matter, the root mass is still  in place, thus adding additional organic matter that will help  to feed the soil microbiome which ultimately will feed the gardens of the future.

Granted, I could pull all the plant material off the garden in the fall and start a compost pile, whether that be a thermal compost pile or a static compost pile.  However, in the fall getting compost piles to decompose materials is tough in our 40 below winters.  I have found that compost piles will cool with the colder weather and slowly convert from a thermal compost pile to a static compost pile to a frozen lump of compost,  depending on it's overall size.  I could certainly still build the pile and then  get it active in the spring whilst adding more materials throughout the winter, but being that I actually trench compost throughout the summer and simply dump my compost directly on the garden throughout the winter, adding the extra steps of developing a compost pile does not make sense to me.

After mowing in the spring, I incorporate all the material into the garden by tilling it in to the soil.  By mid summer, there is very little recognizable material left but the plants are benefitting from it.   A soil test conducted in 2023 by a contract company for my local Co-op revealed that my organic matter was at 12.7%.  

Fall yard cleanup - Organic matter

4.  Allows for first flush of weeds and helps indicate soil health  - because I do minimal till in my garden and given that some seeds may blow in and/or  be deposited by plants I missed with my partial fall yard clean up, it stands to reason that I will have a decent flush of “weeds” in the spring.  But besides these “weeds”  being edible as I explored in Wild food foraging of edible wild greens for supper and/or having medicinal properties, the “weeds” that are coming up in the garden are covering the soil to prevent evaporation and, although some are opportunistic, they are also good indicators of soil condition.  For the most part, the soil test performed by my local Co-op contractor confirmed my suspicions the “weeds” were indicating.

  • Lambs quarter (Chenopodium album) also known as White goosefoot or wild spinach is an indicator of a rich soil, high in nitrogen. My garden is a carpet of this weed and so when the soil test indicated that my nitrogen levels were marginal, I was confused.  But then it dawned on me that my organic matter is 12.7% which is substantially higher than the average of 3 % to 6% found by Cornell University Cooperative Extension in most productive agricultural soil.  After much research, the information would indicate that the organic matter is tieing up the nitrogen and releasing it through the growing season and was not available for testing purposes;
Fall Yard cleanup - Lambs quarter
  • Plantain (Plantago spp.) grows in compacted soil that is typically sour with low fertility.  Sour soil is defined as soil with a pH below 7.0, namely acidic.  According to The Spruce article Acidic Soil: What It Is and When to Change It, as “organic matter breaks down (whether in your yard or the forest), the ground in or under which this decomposition is taking place naturally tends to acidify.”.  And although there is not much plantain in my garden at the moment, with the high organic matter content it would make sense that it is there;
Fall yard cleanup - plantainFall Garden Cleanup - wild mustard
  • Dandelions (Taraxacum spp) and quack grass generally indicate poor soil that is low in calcium and compacted. Although I would not have thought my soil to be compacted, I certainly have problems with quack grass which makes me think it is simply being opportunistic.  However, the soil test revealed that my soil was on the upper extent of marginal calcium levels, verging into optimum;
Fall yard cleanup - dandelion and quack grass
  • Sow Thistle (Sonchus spp) and Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense) are indicative of compacted, heavy, acidic soil.  Although I feel that my surface soil is not compacted, the subsurface may be compacted from earlier activities on the garden site.  Despite the ph rating in my soil of 7.6 due in part to the excess calcium and magnesium in my soil, the high organic matter could be acidifying portions of the garden making ideal growing conditions for the thistle.  Thistle helps to break up the subsoil with it's tap root and bring up iron and moisture for use by shallow-rooted plants.  My soil tested on the upper extent of marginal iron levels, verging on optimum;
Fall yard cleanup - sow thistle

So although the “weeds” that are growing in my garden are reflecting the test results pretty closely, there are some things that are somewhat difficult to explain.  But it would seem from the test results that the “weeds” are doing exactly  what they are designed to do.  I will be retesting the soil in the spring of 2024.  But in the meantime, this carpet of weeds that has emerged is a good cover crop that will get returned to the soil.

5.  Winter protection of perennials - By not removing the summer growth in the fall, the stalks of the plant allow for the capture of leaves which mulches the plant for winter protection.  It also allows for the trapping of the snow for an extra layer of insulation.  By clearing the debris in the fall, an extra layer of mulch is recommended in most articles that suggest a fall yard clean up.  By doing a spring yard clean up, the mulching step is likely to be not necessary;

6.  Provides over wintering protection for insects, insect eggs and/or insect larvae - It is true that not cleaning the garden and flower beds in the fall can provide winter protection for insects, insect eggs and/or insect larvae I don't want such as aphids, white flies, cabbage loppers, cabbage root maggots, Colorado potato beetle and grass hopper larvae, to name a few.  And although removing the debris in the fall would assist in the control of these undesirable insects, I would also be affecting the habitat of overwintering insects, insect eggs and/or insect larvae such as lady bugs, butterflies, wild bees, lacewings, damsel bugs, ground beetles, and many other predatory insects that I want to see in the gardens and flower beds.  And although I remove the majority of the brassica debris to help control the cabbage root maggot, as I discussed earlier,  the rest of the debris is left for the insects to overwinter in.  It is a matter of balance;

7.  Snow capture - If you live in places that get snow and winter storms, you know that the wind likes to blow the snow around.  In doing so it can pile it into drifts in some areas and remove it from others.  By leaving the garden and flower gardens in tact till spring, it acts like a snow fence and captures the snow for another layer of insulation and for added moisture in the spring as the snow melts; 

Fall garden cleanup - snow capture

8.  Dead stalks act as a marker - because I am planting a lot of new perennial plants and flowers in my flower beds and throughout the yard, by leaving the stalks in place, I don't have to try to remember what I planted and where I planted.  The stalks from last year mark the spot for me;

9.  Opportunity to prune winter kill - sometimes plant stalks, mostly shrubs, partially succumb to the harshness of winter and require pruning to remove the dead material.  Spring yard clean up affords me the opportunity to assess each plant and prune accordingly;

10.  Winter interest - Mother nature does not do a fall yard clean up.  But rather for the reason's I discuss here, she dumps everything on the ground, blows it around to mulch the land and then uses that for her canvass as she transforms the land throughout the winter months.  

Fall yard cleanup - pasture in winter

The yard is the same.  By leaving the everything in place until spring, in addition to the reason's I discuss here, it provides moments of beauty and winter interest as the landscape canvass is continually changed during the long months of darkness and cold.  The berries that remain will be more intense in color with a backdrop of dried frosted foliage.

fall garden cleanup - asparagus seed pod in winter

The debris that remains through the winter will provide shadowing and brightness to what would otherwise be a pure white canvass.  It adds an element of beauty to a cold winter's day.

Fall garden cleanup - winter garden beauty

It provides numerous opportunities for hoar frost to create Christmas card moments that remind me that even when things look terrible, there can be moments of beauty.

Fall garden cleanup - hoar frost on dill


Final Thoughts

Every person's reasons for cleaning their garden at a certain time of the year are different and to each their own.   However, for me, the reasons for waiting till spring to do a complete spring yard clean up far out weigh doing a complete fall yard clean up. Granted, as the snow melts and exposes everything again it can look like a daunting task.  But once I put my mind to the task it is done in no time at all.

But the main reason for me to primarily do a spring yard clean up is best summed up by one of the first natural landscaping books I bought many years ago titled Landscaping with Nature by Jeff Cox  where he writes “We are beginning to understand that the quality of our relationship to the Earth will determine the quality of our future. Landscaping with nature gives us a reason to go to Nature and learn from her and to recreate some of her beautiful features in our gardens.  Nature is our great teacher.  She contains within her cycles and expressions all that we need to know to be truly and fully human.  Only our ignorance prevents our full flowering. ”It's not nature-as-chaos that threatens us," says the poet Gary Snyder, “but ignorance of the real natural world.”  The “real natural world” can teach us who we are and how to live.".

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into why I choose to do a total spring yard clean up rather than a fall yard clean up and that also, it has given you some food for thought.  If you did enjoy it please consider joining the My Boreal Homestead Life community.  By supplying your email address at the bottom of the page and hitting "sign up" or by clicking Join the community, you will ensure you get an email notification when I post new blogs to the My Boreal Homestead Life site.

Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a Modern World.


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Seasonal Yard clean up - spring or fall

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