Life + Outdoors » Down and Dirty

Cleaning Up the Garden

And what to leave messy


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Even though we live in a temperate climate, I've been noticing some subtle changes in the weather and critters here on the coast. I've been seeing wooly banded bears — a caterpillar that has some bizarre obsession with crossing roads, at least down in my neck of the woods. Their fuzzy black and orange presence reminds us it's going to get cooler and we may even see some rain. That means it's time to get those garden chores done so we can be prepared for winter crops, as well as next spring.

It's not too late to plant some veggies, as they love our cooler weather and, if we're lucky, you may not even have to water them much. Vegetables to plant right now include: kale, collards, lettuces, peas, broccoli and the very important garlic.

I had a bit of a disaster with my garlic crop this year. Rust! Rust is a pernicious fungal disease. I know other gardeners who also had problems with rust, likely due to the cool, drippy weather we had this summer, followed by warm sunshine. I foolishly planted my garlic in a spot with some afternoon shade, which didn't do it any favors. I learned from a fellow gardener that she likes to wait until at least November to plant her garlic and she's found that it helps prevent rust. I normally plant it at the end of October, so I'll give it a try this year. If you were unfortunate enough to have rust in your alliums (it also affects onions and leeks), you must rotate the crop next year, as rust spores will stay in the soil.

Clean up spent fruit. If you have fallen apples/pears/plums, it's crucial to clean up the fallen fruit (unless you have the freaking cloven-hooved devil's spawn deer like I do, in which case, they'll clean it up for you), because it can attract fruit flies, beetles, and even fungal rot. These are not things you want in your orchard the following season.

But when it comes to garden cleanup, don't clean up everything. Pollinators, birds and other wildlife need food and shelter. Fallen leaves from trees will compost down and turn into what's known as "leaf litter." Decaying leaves provide organic matter to your soil, creating habitat for worms, insects and other organisms. The one exception to not cleaning up leaves is if disease has attacked them. You'll want to clean up black spots on roses and leaf curl on peach leaves so they don't infect plants the following year.

If you can stand the look of it, don't cut back spent flowers on every single blooming thing you have in your yard or garden. I'd love to say it was on purpose but it was because of overwhelm and a touch of laziness that I never cut back the stalks on the cow parsnip that grows all over the place here on the coast. I was surprised, yet delighted, to watch a Downy woodpecker work on one of the spent stalks. The stalks are strong enough to hold the bird's weight, and there was a bonanza of little insects inside, which the woodpecker happily ate as I watched from a distance. Even if you have a small space, try to leave a bit of brush piled up in a spot or two. This will provide cover for wildlife, as well as spots for quail to lay their eggs next year. Don't panic if you see damage on leaves, such as wisteria or roses, that look like something has been munching on them, making little half circles. These are from leaf cutter bees, native pollinators that use the cut leaves and flowers to make their nests.

Do clean up spent vines from tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, peas, etc. As long as they aren't infected with something nasty, you can put these in your compost pile, along with plenty of "brown" material. Straw or leaves make a good addition to the compost pile.

This is also one of the best times to plant shrubs and trees in your garden. The soil is still warm enough for root growth and, if we're lucky and get rain, you won't have to water them until next spring. You do need to water any new plants until we start getting significant rain, though, to give them a good head start. As always, consider adding a native plant or two to your garden. Spring flowering bulbs are already showing up at local nurseries, as well as Costco. I snagged a bag of 50 daffodil bulbs I might even plant this year, rather than watching them turn green, then moldy because I never got around to them. Don't be like me. Plant those bulbs!

Lastly, take a look at what plants did well in your garden this year, and what might want to be moved or outright removed. It's fun to ponder a new look in your yard or garden next year. As one of my coffee mugs says, a garden is never finished.

Julia Graham-Whitt (she/her) is owner and operator of the landscaping business Two Green Thumbs.


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