When it comes to cleaning up your garden in autumn, it’s easy to lose yourself in the details. But trusting nature with your garden is often the best way to make sure it stays healthy and beautiful.
Focus on the essential autumn garden cleanup tasks, the ones that really matter. Don’t be afraid of a little disorder on your green patch. It’s part of nature’s way and, just like those shredded leaves that can become mulch for your flower beds, continues the cycle of the seasons.
Of course, that still leaves plenty of essential things to do in your garden this autumn.
What needs to be done in the garden in autumn?
You want to rake excess leaves, clear dead and diseased plants and weeds, remove spent crops, mulch and protect vulnerable plants, and give the grass a final cut.
Autumn is also the time to compost leaves and tidy up your flower beds. Depending on the flowers you grow in your garden, you may have to divide perennials and shelter certain plants.
If the weather is on your side, you can also plant winter crops, which may involve preparing for them your vegetable beds and/or greenhouse, polytunnel, and cold frames.
Read on for tips on all the important things you need to do in your garden before the frosty weather comes.
So, how do you clean up an autumn garden?
Cleaning up an autumn garden may seem like a lot of work. But if you break it down into steps, you’ll find the workload more manageable.
1. Rake or blow the leaves
Leaving a thick carpet of leaves over the ground can be smothering for the grass and living plants and harbour pests. You also want to watch out for leaf piles around the trunks of young trees. They make perfect hiding spots for rodents that may gnaw the young trunks.
The best way to rake leaves is by doing it a bit at a time. This is especially true if you have a large deciduous tree in your garden or many plants that shed leaves around this time of year. If you wait for all the leaves to fall, by the time you finally rake them, they may have already damaged the grass and other low-lying plants.
Raking is also good for the grass since it helps to aerate it. You may want to use a lightweight plastic rake rather than a heavy metal one. It’s less work on your hands and won’t damage thick grass either.
But don’t get carried away by all that raking. You can also leave some small leaf piles out of the way. They may provide shelter to pollinators over winter.
Tip: Rake or blow your leaves into a pile and use your lawnmower to vacuum them. Then dump the mower bag into your compost bin or straight over the places that could do with a layer of mulch.
2. Compost leaves and the remains of withered plants
If you don’t have a compost bin, autumn’s the best time of the year to build or get one. Through the alchemy of nature, a compost bin will transform this year’s fallen leaves and dead plant matter into rich compost for your soil next year.
Speed up composting by mixing carbon-rich brown leaves with nitrogen-rich green plant remains, food and vegetable scraps, and grass clippings. Keep the compost pile slightly wet—or trust the rain to do it. You also want to aerate it by turning it with a fork now and then.
Important: Be careful not to compost diseased plants or their remains. The disease may survive in the compost bin and return next year.
3. Remove spent crops and residue from the vegetable garden
Prune, cut, and dig them up if you have to. If you intend to plant winter crops, start with the beds reserved for them to make sure they will be ready in time for autumn planting.
Tip: Leave the roots of peas and beans in the ground since they provide a rich source of nitrogen, fertilising other crops. Simply cut these plants off at ground level.
Consider sowing a winter crop or green manure to improve the quality of the soil.
The rest of the vegetable beds you can cover with mulch, tarp, or landscape fabric to fight off weeds and preserve them for spring.
Don’t forget to remove bamboo canes, temporary trellises, and other supports that are no longer necessary. Wash them and store in a sheltered place.
4. Tidy up the flower beds
Cut back the perennials that bloom first in spring about 4-5 inches. Think irises, lilies, peonies, and bulbs. Using a hedge trimmer rather than garden clippers can save you time on this task.
Don’t forget to clean up any diseased foliage from roses. You also want to cut or deadhead self-seeding plants. Autumn winds may spread their seeds all over your garden.
You can leave the rest of the flower bed clearing to early spring when the flowers put forth new growth. Not only is this convenient, but it can help beneficial insects find shelter over winter. Keep in mind too that stems with attractive seed heads can be a treat for the birds.
If you have any tender plants that freezing temperatures may damage, now’s the time to move them to a sheltered place or use winter wrapping materials such as straw or fleece to insulate them.
Tip: Leave some leaves in your flower bed, they will break down and feed the soil. It will save you time from raking now and mulching in spring.
5. Divide and reposition crowded perennials
Got lilies, peonies, or hostas in your garden? Like other perennials, they can benefit from being divided every few years if they’ve become crowded.
A perennial clump needs to be divided if the flowers or the plants in the middle look unwell. Dig out the perennials carefully with a spade. Also with the spade, divide the plants into smaller ones and replant them giving them more space around each other.
6. Prepare the roses for winter
Remove diseased leaves from your rosebushes. You also want to stop deadheading your roses around 10 weeks before the first frost of the year.
If your roses have long stems, trim them to make sure they won’t snap during strong winds. You can also trim back branches that may rub against each other and get damaged.
7. Remove weeds
While tidying your garden, you’ll invariably come across some weeds. Weeding now will save you precious time in spring so you can focus then on planting new flowers and veggies.
Tip: To make weeding easier, do it after a rain so that the soil is loose. Your hands will thank you for it.
8. Give the grass a last cut (and make it longer)
Caterpillars and other soil-enriching bugs like burrowing into autumn grass. Mow it too closely, and you’ll upset them big time. Leaving the grass a bit longer than usual in winter will protect both the soil and the grass.
So, after raking the leaves from your grass, set the blades of your lawnmower to a higher setting. After the last cut of the year, clean your lawnmower and remove the grass from it.
Tip: Got a shredding mower? Use it to turn unraked leaves into leaf little that is nourishing for the soil.
If your grass patch joins footpaths, garden beds, ponds, and other garden features, you can use a gardening knife or edging tool to neaten and redefine its edges before the soil hardens.
9. Remove broken branches from the trees
Autumn is not the time for any serious pruning—leave that to spring. But cleaning off any dead branches is good for the trees.
Use sharp pruners to make a cut close to the trunk. You may need a ladder for this task, and someone to hold it, alternatively use a pair of long-handled pruners.
Tip: If you have fruit trees in your garden, make sure to remove any fallen fruit from around them as these may attract pests.
10. Remove leaves from the pond
If you have a pond in your garden, remove any leaves that have fallen into the water. If they rot, they will reduce the quality of the water and affect the wildlife.
Remove any pumps or equipment from the water too. Depending on the size of the pond, you may also want to drain it and clean the water features before winter settles in your garden.
11. Neaten the bushes and ornamental borders
Tidy up ornamental bushes and borders if you want to. But hold back any serious cutting until spring. Ornamental borders shelter beneficial insects.
You don’t want to prune berry bushes either unless you know the cultivar you’re growing needs it. Apply a layer of mulch to the bushes that are less winter hardy. If they are in an exposed area, consider creating a windbreaker to protect them from winter storms.
Don’t forget that autumn is a good time to plant more shrubs and trees. If your garden needs them, go ahead and plant them.
12. Add organic matter to the soil
To improve growth conditions next year, consider testing the soil in your garden. If your soil is very alkaline, amend it with sulphur. If it’s too acidic, use lime.
Once the plants in your garden have entered dormancy, you can add shredded leaves or compost to fertilise the parts of your garden that need it the most. Rotten manure is also great.
This takes a bit of work. But if you work the organic matter a few inches into your soil now, planting and growing things in spring will get easier.
13. Make winter a litter easier for the birds
Do birds stop by your garden? Check and repair any birdhouses you may have in your garden. Remove leaves from the bird fountains and birdbaths and clean them up if necessary.
Pumps, fountains, and other mechanisms that may freeze will have to go inside the shed. Until freezing temperatures arrive, try to keep the water in the birdbaths fresh.
Don’t forget to clean any nest boxes and bird feeders. You can fill the latter with seed mixes and other bird-friendly foods.
14. Get your garden tools and accessories ready for winter
Clean and sand garden tools before putting them away for winter. Disinfect any pruners or shears you’ve used to cut diseased plants. If any tool needs mending, now’s the time to do it or make a note and fix it one winter day when you have nothing better to do.
Use diluted bleach to clean any clay or ceramic pots before storing them inside. You don’t want the frost to crack them, do you?
And don’t forget to remove the water hose and turn off the water if it runs the risk of freezing in winter.
15. Repair all those things you’ve been putting off repairing during summer
Last but not least, repair the compost bins, raised beds, polytunnels, or cold frames that need it. Also, check any outdoor garden furniture to make sure it’s winter-ready.
Paint any wooden furniture, benches, fences, shed doors, or the like with spray paint containing a sealant. That way you’ll prevent rot and make your garden look nicer, too.
Oh, and if your wheelbarrow wheel has gone flat, now’s as good a time as any to see to it.
When should I clean my garden in autumn?
The best time to start an autumn garden clean up is after the first few freezing nights come round. By this time, most of the foliage and the last blooms of the year will have fallen. Perennials too will have entered dormancy.
Avoid cutting back plants too early or you may encourage new growth before winter, which may damage them. It’s often easier and more beneficial for your garden to clean it in multiple rounds rather than in one go. It’s also less stressful and enables you to focus on one task at a time.
What plants should be cleaned in autumn?
Clean up blooming perennials, self-seeding plants you don’t want to take over your garden, and any dead or diseased plants, including those in your vegetable patch. Don’t forget about peonies, lilies, roses, or irises. You can also remove dead branches and old fruit from the trees.
Other than that, you don’t want to be pruning plants for the sake of it unless you’re certain they need it. You’ll be doing plenty of pruning in spring once the plants put forth new growth.
What autumn cleanup chores can I skip?
You can save time on your autumn garden cleanup by leaving any leaves in your flower beds to rot there at their own pace. You can also leave dead foliage on most plants except those that may harbour pests.
Lastly, you can leave sunflowers and other seed-rich flowers where they are since their seeds can feed wildlife in the colder months. But be careful about self-seeding plants or they may spread.