7 Tips for Fall Garden Clean Up

Cherokee Striped Cornhill Pole Bean, 3 sisters gardening, beans on corn, pole beans on natural support
Picture of a garden after frost hit
Gardens after frost….

7 Tips for Fall Garden Clean Up

Every fall, when frost kills the warm weather crops in our garden, I start thinking of garden clean up. Many new gardeners will wonder just exactly what should “fall garden clean up” entail? Years ago, “garden clean up,” ideally meant pulling up all plants (except winter crops), stakes, trellises, weeds and spoiled produce and tilling everything; leaving a patch of bare soil, or, in better scenarios, a green patch, which had been planted in winter rye.

Exactly what does “Fall Garden Cleanup” Entail?

Have I ever done this? No, I haven’t. Why have I never done this? Well, first of all I have often been unsuccessful in getting “aroundtuit.” Secondly, my garden has always had quite a bit of plantings which will either flower and seed in the spring, or which will be harvested during the winter. So, tilling an entire garden is a little complicated for me!

To Completely Wipe a Garden Clean in the Fall will Harm some of its Inhabitants.

Another reason why the bare earth approach has never caught on in my garden life is an almost imperceptible shift in how I have come to see my garden. Actually, the shift came almost imperceptibly, but once made, it’s immense! There was a time that I saw the soil as the medium in which I planted my seeds, and little more. By spending many years in my garden and observing what’s actually there, I’ve come to see garden soil as the home of many organisms, and many of them are quite desirable. I really don’t want to harm them. Some of the “stuff” I leave out there even serves to shelter beneficial creatures. This was really driven home to me, about this time of November, back in 2009. One sunny morning I took my spading fork to the main garden and decided to dig up some weeds. In the course of uprooting Johnson and Bermuda grass in a 3’X3’ patch I unearthed a bunch of worms, a toad, a baby box turtle, a small brown earth snake and a sleepy blue tailed skink (type of lizard)! Because I was using a fork, they all escaped harm. But if I had been using a rototiller… I doubt they would have survived. Now I look at my garden cleanup differently.

I used to see the soil as nothing more than growing medium, but no longer!

Garden clean up is a good thing. But hopefully we can modify it a bit. Here are some suggestions:

  • Clean up diseased and potentially diseased plant material. I am specifically thinking of tomato and squash vines. Tomato vines almost always harbor foliar diseases. For instance, late blight is the disease which causes tomato plants to drop leaves, starting at the bottom of the plant. This disease is pretty ubiquitous in the United States. It helps to remove those dead and dying vines, bag them and put them out with the trash, rather than let them decompose in the garden, releasing more disease spores into the soil. Squash vines harbor eggs and larva of various pests, including the marmorated stink bug and squash bugs. If I get rid of those eggs and hibernating larva, my squash and pumpkins will be much happier in the coming year!

Try to eliminate seed bearing weeds.

  • Cut or pull any weeds which may still be holding on to their seeds, and which you DON’T want in your garden next spring. Some weeds hold onto their seeds for a while. You can save a ton of work by eliminating the seeds before they get onto your soil. Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to leave a few weeds as shelter for beneficial insects and small birds, etc. That’s why my garden looks so weedy during the winter. (That’s my story and I’m sticking with it 😉
  • Spend some time digging out stubborn rooted weeds. Some, like curly dock and poke weed have long tap roots which require much effort to root out. Johnson and Bermuda grass make large mats of intertwined roots, which will hinder spring transplants, even though they themselves will be dormant until after the transplants are in the ground. In other words, I need to note their location while their tops are still intact, and dig the roots before I plant something in that place. A spading fork is a HUGE help in doing this.’

A Spading Fork is Very Helpful!

  • Leave brassicas such as turnips, rutabagas, mustard greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and radishes in the garden. They attract some harmful pests, which live in the ground, and then, when they rot in the spring, they produce toxins which kill the pests without harming beneficials!

    growing cabbages and turnips in the fall
    Growing cabbages and turnips in the fall


  • Save your leaves. If you can, get your neighbor’s leaves too! At the very least, pile them up and let them decompose through the winter. You can even dump them on the garden, helping to prevent the germination of cold hardy weed seeds. You can even use them as mulch when you put out spring transplants. Fall leaves are like brown gold, left by the curb by people who don’t know any better!
  • If you clear up some space while days are still relatively warm, try planting a cover crop. A cover crop is something which will grow during the fall, winter and early spring, but which can easily be killed. It protects the soil from erosion and often increases fertility. Some cover crops are Austrian winter peas, wheat, rye and hairy vetch. Even turnips or daikon radishes, when planted a month or more before real freezing weather sets in to stay, will serve as great cover crops, crops which even give you some food, if you are so inclined!

Finally, the most neglected piece of gardening advice…

   7. Get your soil tested so you can amend it intelligently. Your county extension agent can help you with this.

Just some thoughts … from the homestead,



Some Further Resources:

The Old Farmer’s Almanac on Garden Clean Up

University of Illinois Extension Service: On Garden Clean Up

Six reasons to NOT clean up the garden this fall



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