Fall Cleanup: Leaves & Perennials

Want to save a lot of time and work?

Leave those leaves be! And the perennial stems in your garden too.

Now, I know it’s considered normal to cut down all the old perennials, grasses, in your yard once they become dried up. It’s also kind of normal to rake up all the leaves in your yard too. But I’m going to explain how leaving all this just be this fall, will save you work, time, and probably money too.

Leaves Are Great For Your Lawn!

Leaving your leaves on the ground is not going to hurt your lawn. In fact, it’s going to benefit it! Leaf matter is nature’s way of providing nutrients back into the soil. Imagine the scent of fresh air in a wooded forest. It smells clean and energetic. This is due to the beneficial organic matter in the soil, and of course the abundance of oxygen and carbon from the plants. Leaves are a natural mulch. In fact, that’s what we’re replicating when we buy mulch! Nature’s mulch is leaves, sticks, and other matter that breaks down on the forest floor.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 4.01.12 PM
A red Red Maple Leaf

In other words, leaves are free compost and fertilizer for your lawn. I notice the grass around my trees is better than other areas. This is somewhat due to the light shade it provides in the heat of the summer, but also because of the tree’s leaves. Putting bags of leaves on the curb is a waste of resources and creates an impact on a city’s landfill.

You can however have too many leaves… if there are a tons of leaves left on the lawn to sit in one spot with lots of moisture. If your leaves are around 6″ deep and you can’t see any lawn below it, it’s may a good idea to spread them out so your lawn doesn’t become smothered. Every one has their own opinion on how many leaves is too much. If your leaf pile is really thick, you can rake or use an air blower to spread them across the lawn, or break them up with the mower or weedeater, which makes them decompose faster.

If you still rather rake up every bit your leaves; keep them around in a different way. You can simply add some to your perennial bed as a layer of mulch. Run them over with the mower and put them into a compost pile. You can add them to your regular compost or create a special leaf mold litter bin. Leaf mold is a great soil amendment. You can also simply mow the leaves so they break down into the soil faster, which makes them less visible and puts those nutrients into the soil!

Last but not least, rake them up and give them to someone who would like to use them in their landscape somehow.

Leaves Are Habitat & an Indicator of Landscape Health:

Leaves are habitat for a lot of good things that are going to benefit you and wildlife.

For example, lighting bugs live in leaf matter. Who loves lightening bugs?! The amount of lighting bugs in your yard is a good indication of its health. Birds love leaves because of the insects that hide in them, and when the leaves begin to fall is the time of year birds need more food. Leaf litter also houses a lot of good microbes that are going to increase the health of your soil.

Red Maple Fallen Fall Leaves
Leaves from my Red Maple

Taking Care of Old Perennial Steams:

Now for those perennials. If you have any grasses in your yard, leaving their plumage is going to add great winter interest to your yard. Many designers use grasses in their design for this specific reason. The ruffle of grasses also sounds great in the wind. The growth habit of grasses provide great habitat for birds to hang out during the cold and wind. It can also help as a wind break and depending where you have them in the landscape, this could help with energy use in your home. It’s okay to cut down your grasses when the new blades begin to emerge in spring.

Little Bluestem turned to its golden color of fall
Little Bluestem turned to its golden color of fall

The main reason to leave perennial stems hang on over the winter is for habitat of our insects, such as native bees (which are nice bees!) and moths/butterflies and other good insects.

Perennial stems is where some of these beneficial insects for your garden live over the winter!

I know many homeowners rather have the old steams cleaned up, and this is understandable for an aesthetic look. However, leaving them can create a neat winter garden (and lets you know where your plants are when there’s snow!). But, if you feel your perennials need to go once they’re brown, opt for just cutting those in the front yard that are visible to the neighborhood.

If you do cut down the flower stalks there are ways to still help out our good insects. Place the stems in a hidden area to sit through the winter until late spring. Even better, place them in an old plant pot (with drainage) to let them sit standing upright. Doing this increases the chance of those insects emerging next winter. Insects are delicate, they might not emerge if their winter house is laid horizontal instead of kept upright. If you leave your perennial stalks, leaving them hanging on until May is the best thing you can do.

If you still rather remove the stems, create a native bee home. Check out these ideas on my Pinterest Board: Native Bee Homes, or you can purchase already made ones.

Bluewood Aster provides winter interest even with lots of snow
Bluewood Aster seeds heads showing interest during snow

An instance where I do recommend removing old perennial stems is if they became diseased over the season. Some plants are prone to catching powdery mildew at the end of the season such as peonies or coreopsis. Do not compost these leaves or stems to prevent spread next year, but dispose of properly.

I also recommend removing the old plants from your vegetable garden and not composting them either. Many bad insects, especially those of squash, cucumber can stay living in them and create a larger outbreak next season. Any plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, that developed rust, mold, or mildew should be removed and disposed of properly as well.

I hope these suggestions will help your garden become a better ‘living landscape’ this fall with these easy tips.



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