How to Do a More Conscious Fall Cleanup

Oct 26, 2022 · 75 comments
I am going to buy a Powerball ticket today so I have a chance of having a garden like this.
rowan (washington, dc)
Why show this formal, intricately clipped garden when you want to talk about using fall leaves as garden winter cover?
Name (Location)
We're having a really pretty leaf change in our area. Summer was fairly wet and fall has been fairly dry. Ideal conditions for a slower dramatic color change so we're seeing brilliant reds and yellows even while green hangs on in surrounding deciduous trees. It makes for a striking contrast where potted annuals are still blooming in the sunny warmer days while the chill crisp nights are spurring on the strong early fall color in an assortment of trees and shrubs. It's been lovely fall and full of good outdoor gardening and yard work. Labor of love. There is something very satisfying about being in the garden during these transitory periods. It takes me back to helping my dad in the fall... big leaf piles to jump into, the dogs running zoomies though the dried foliage and my dad's comforting presence working nearby. People often talk about food elliciting personal memories, and I experience that as well, but I am most often stirred to meaningful recollections by the outdoors and natural environment because my father had us outdoors so much growing up. I realize now how great a gift he gave in sharing his love of the natural world and how it profoundly shaped how I look at the world around me every day.
Kim Kachmann (Hilton Head Island, SC)
Now an “Empty Nester" who raised three kids, I have become fascinated with learning about how to care for indoor and outdoor plants. I live on an island with the kind of mild climate that provides an abundance of opportunities to hit or miss. Indoor, some of the varieties I absolutely love are the Peacock Plant, Polynesian Peperomia, and most of all—the Audrey Ficus Bengalese’s Tree. I have three of the latter, including a very large one, and would love to hear how best to care for them because I think I made a terrible mistake: I put my biggest Ficus (which consist of three, medium-size trees in one large pot) in my shower and covered it with a mist of water from a handheld spray (not the shower head) before quickly turning it off. Ever since then, however, I’ve noticed a creeping rot or dark wetness climbing up their stems that is knocking off their precious furry leaves that I love so much. Is there anything I can do for the plants at this point—change their soil, pot or…? Thank you in advance.
Name (Location)
@Kim Kachmann I've lost indoor plants to over-watering before becoming more cognizant about when I watered and began to stick to a routine of only watering on the weekend and watering at the soil line, never on the leaves. I also water somewhat lightly and it seems to toughen them up and keep soil fungus down. Good soil drainage is important so I think it could help you made sure your plant is situated in a pot that is plenty big and filled with well draining light and loamy indoor plant potting soil of good quality. You might consider collecting rainwater or using a distilled water to lightly water it in when you replant and perhaps for a few weeks while it recovers from both the fungus issues and re-potting. You might look into an anti fungal treatment as well and consider using a root stimulator when you re-pot to reduce stress on your already stressed tree. Follow up your re-potting in a couple weeks with very dilute dose of water soluble fertilizer but then back off feeding and just water. Chlorine in tap water is hard on indoor plants especially so I take mine out into the rain or collect rainwater to use periodically, usually every 5 or 6 weeks. They always look better for it so it's worth the effort for what we have. Good luck. Hope you can save your big ficus
Name (Location)
@Kim Kachmann Also, if you are going to use the same pot, I would wash and bleach it out to kill off fungus before re-using. And of course, it would be good to gently leave behind as much of the contaminated soil as possible when you re-pot and replace it with a fresh indoor mix. Trim away and discard any sick looking foliage as well. You may lose root mass in leaving behind old soil, but if you use a transplanting rooting hormone solution, it will help to off set the loss. If you have a large enough bucket to fill with water, you can gently was away old soil to achieve a cleaner root ball with less damage to finer roots, though that may still be more than your ficus wants to bear. I am interested to hear what others suggest.
tracy fleming (Ohio, US)
Such beauty brought tears to my eyes. Thank you!
Little Miss Muffet (Wide wide world)
@tracy fleming I read the opening sentence of this column and it immediately swt itself to music; And I"m no musician. Please will somebody make a song of this beautiful lyric in waiting' And Ms, Roach, please continue by writing the lyrics or even a poem. Lovely.
Amanda (Herts)
In line with our new rewilding principles, we don't do a clean up at this time of year any more. We allow the leaves to fall and the dead plants to die and rot and nature intend. All kinds of bugs and creepy crawlies will thereby find winter shelter. By looking after the bottom of the food chain, we look after all of it. Mess is best.
Catherine (Hometown, USA)
Previous owner wasn't a landscaper so we've planted 20 small trees & shrubs this year. We brought recycle bags to the city compost site and brought home free leaves for composting until spring. We made chickenwire cylinders with one post each for temporay storage of the leaves. We will mix the leaves with existing soil while planting next spring. It's a good start.
Kevin (Toronto)
My 10' x 10' front yard doesn't warrant a gas or electric mower. I rake my leaves into the boulevard garden and keep my grass clean from leaves. I also put down some burlap on the borders to protect from the mounds of salt the city drops to keep the sidewalks safe.
Name (Location)
@Kevin Glad you mentioned road salt. I'm sure it does a fair amount of landscape damage. Fortunately, your diminutive garden space is easy to protect.
B. (Brooklyn)
In New York City, piles of leaves make excellent rats' nests.
chrisinroch (Rochester ny)
@B. Sometimes people forget that "wildlife" includes more than the cute little mouse or chipmunk.
KHG (Falmouth, MA)
@B. New York City....
chrisinroch (Rochester ny)
@KHG I'm in the suburbs of Rochester, not too far from the Genesee River. If you offer the right conditions, rats will come. Like fallen birdseed, garden debris.
John (Hartford)
My yard is a rather like this (it's not low maintenance) all surrounded by a magnificent canopy of trees which are just starting to fall but still look wonderful. But yes of course the fall is time take stock, move a few things, get rid of what is not working. The drought in CT this year hit some things hard and so a bit more work this year than usual. And btw my formal clipped hedges were packed with masses of birds of different species. You just have to time the clipping.
meh (Cochecton, NY)
While leaving the leaves may work on some areas of a property, it won't work in all of them. For example, the leaves on my front lawn will end up in the drainage ditch bordering the road and conequently blocking the culvert (and that of my downhill neighbors) carrying my driveway over the drainage ditch if they are not removed. If I don't remove them, the town highway department has to come along with a front-loader and remove them because the blocked culverts can cause "dams" which then spill water onto the roads. So homeowners/gardeners have to assess which are the 'best practices' for their own property regardless of what the current notions are about leaf removal.
Alisonoc (Irvington)
How to Make a More Consciously Sculpted Garden (with non-native Boxwoods)
Full Name (New York)
Upstate, we mow all the leaves into the lawn. Guess what we have a beautiful lawn every season because of it, and it sure beats blowers, rakes and bagging. Try it, free fertilizer for your grass. Other plants we mulch and put back into the woods. Bagging leaves is silly.
Upstate (Northern NY)
Within reason, you cam mow leaves but when you have large old maples and oaks, I defy you to chop them all into mulch. These two gentlemen and Martha Stewart types are beyond me my income and skill level.
Liberal In a Red State (Indiana)
My fall garden clean up is pretty much hands off. I leave perennials like rudbeckia and turtlehead and Joe Pye weed until spring. My husband does clean up some leaves, in the front yard especially, but I have whole areas where the leaves fall and remain. I will move my hardy herbs in their pots to a protected area and bank leaves around them. Then it's time to sit on the patio with a cup of coffee and watch the birds and enjoy the day.
B. (WI via NY - PA - VA - WV - TX)
"An opportunity to add habitat and create a contrast to the formality the couple had cultivated presented itself ... . It was the beginning of their nearly wild garden ... ." You seem to have fallen into a common and terrible trap, Ms. Roach. To me this implies that a wildlife habitat garden and a formal garden are mutually exclusive. That cannot be further from the truth. As I read in Birders World (now BirdWatching) magazine ages ago, a wildlife habitat garden full of native species can look "intended rather than untended" and therefore look just as formal as one dominated by ornamentals -- it's all about borders, paths, and an organized plan.
David (Short Hills, NJ)
Wonderful story, but little for the average gardener to learn and use.
tracy fleming (Ohio, US)
Oh, but you are wrong.
Cinny MacGonagle (Killingworth CT)
I was hoping that he'd replace most of his nonnative plants with natives - not just in a small area. He doesn't seem to get it that natives are crucial to attracting insects that are the base of the food chain. Fewer insects means fewer birds, butterflies, toads, etc. And why take the dead seedheads inside in the fall, when the birds could be eating them? I don't see this as a "conscious cleanup."
winchestereast (usa)
Bkny (Brooklyn, NY)
Beautiful pictures and interesting read on this garden, but I thought I would be learning something about, you know, how to do a more conscious fall clean up? In my opinion that is: Don't Do A Fall Clean Up. Don't cut anything back until Spring when the temps have been above 55F for a few days so that overwintering insects have a chance to wake up and get out. Same goes for the leaves (leave them!). If/when you cut down, the 12 inch rule mentioned in the article is way too short. An expert on native bees recommended to leave stems as tall as you possibly can.
Tom (Pennsylvania)
Seems very formal with too much of an emphasis on plants as decorations. There was a time when I might have been impressed by a garden like this, but not any more. Unless its planted with mostly native plants and the primary purpose is to increase biodiversity. I'm just not interested.
panam (Middletown, Pennsylvania)
My garden would show that this article is not just for the 1% with its permission to leave leaves and allow lawns to change into meadows. I am 74 and live in the house that used to belong to my in laws. Hence we have two old oaks and a couple of pines from the sixties. I love the yellow pine needle carpet. My husband at 78 still runs the mower which he did over the first fall of leaves. There is tremendous excitement over this year's crop of acorns: squirrels and a while back blue jays. I have rescued plants from up and down the street. People were throwing out hosta and hydrangea and these have been gifts that keep on giving! In our Pennsylvania cold the hydrangeas, usually blue, have turned a deep beet colour. Hosta has turned yellow while keeping its shape. Previously I brought canna bulbs inside but this year I won't bother we will see what happens. Tulips are nestled underground near the front where car traffic deters squirrels. Daffodil bulbs are in a meadow section in the back under pines. Some azaleas my late mother bought for me in the early nineties look like they will bloom yet again in spring. I rarely buy plants.
Treetop (Us)
Love reading about how other gardeners approach their garden, how they think about the aesthetics and the horticulture. It’s such a mix of science and art. The fall cleanup is just a portion of this article, but it points to some good ideas about doing it gradually and leaving habitat for winter.
drs (Indianpolis)
Next time I come across a spare quarter-acre to garden I'll check back to this article for tips! Really, please give us all a break. I'm happy to see the beautiful gardens, but presenting pictures of this garden alongside a narrative that offers tips to the ordinary gardener is tone deaf in the extreme.
What a beautiful garden! I can hardly imagine the time, effort, planning and of course labor and expense involved. Separately, just this past weekend saw some stray lilac blooms on several trees at the Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island. Are there varieties that bloom that late, or tricks to get lilacs to bloom in the fall!??
John Virgone (Pennsylvania)
Fall cleanup in this neck of the woods is a comedy in action. The most hilarious being those intolerant of one leaf left behind as they rake/leaf blow for hours on end. With trees still holding a majority of their leaves, it would be more prudent to spend less time of early season cleanup by concentrating on getting the bulk of the fallen leaves out for pickup while leaving the "escapees" for the next round of cleanup or for the mower to mulch.
AnnaT (PA)
I am the world's worst gardener, but I now have a small yard to take care of. I have a *ton* of leaves. For the experts here in the comments: s it ok to rake them and use them to mulch/cover the beds? Or is it crucial to leave them where they fall? I also hoped to use them to cover some cardboard-covered soil I'm trying to improve.
Kathryn (The Alleghenies)
@AnnaT As they break down, the leaves will add valuable nutrients and texture to your beds. That process takes time, though. Speed it up by running your lawn mower over the leaves to cut them into smaller pieces before raking them onto your beds. Another wonderful use of fallen leaves is insulating tender plants (such as figs). Just curve some wire fencing around such a plant, then stuff the bin you've created with leaves. You'll help the plant survive the winter, AND in the spring you'll have a lot of composted leaves for mulching. Mother Nature says THANK YOU.
Katy (pro women)
@AnnaT You first need to know what kind of trees you have. If you have oaks, the leaves will discourage anything from growing when used as mulch.
AnnaT (PA)
Thank you both.
Adam S (MI)
Based on the article's headline, I thought it would be more oriented towards home gardeners looking to have a more sustainable approach to their fall clean-up. I see neighbors with bags and bags of leaves to be carted off by the garbage trucks, and I wonder at all the ways we could use this time of year to prep our yards for overwintering species.
Vanessa (Millersburg MO)
I hope there is something nearby for the pollinators, because it's not here. Is a garden without pollinators really a garden?
Kurt Freitag (Newport, Oregon)
You now know what happened to the British Empire.
ljl (Richmond, VA.)
Why is it that this headline has nothing to do with this story?
SteveRR (CA)
lol... meanwhile... back on planet earth...
Jorge (San Diego)
It's beautiful, but sustainable? I see two things in the photos-- a lawn and gravel-- both not necessary. Sustainable ground cover instead of grass, and paving stones or bricks, with lots of space, instead of gravel. The fallen leaves go into a compost pile, or let them be. My yard has some things that need water (avocados and citrus, vegetables, small patch of lawn) and others that don't (wildflowers, succulents).
R.F. (Shelburne Falls, MA)
@Jorge Unlike southern CA, grass is very sustainable in the wetter northeast. Use lime to counter highly acidic soils. Use organic fertilizer sparingly. I've used it only 5 times in 33 years. And keep the square footage of lawn in balance with plantings ie, more square footage of plantings than lawn. As for fallen leaves, I mow over them at least twice to chip them into small bits which will decay back into the soil and feed the trees from which they came. I also spread more of the mulched leaves on the area of lawn where there are fewer fallen leaves. When all is said and done, there are none left for the compost pile. Of course all these practices are sensible for the northeast and not San Diego
Reggie (MA)
Sorry, but.... these pictures are like, not reality. It already looks cleaned up and neat from some landscapers..... Come see my backyard! I'm all in on leaving the leaves there.
Will. (NYCNYC)
Leave the leaves. They are necessary to fertilize the ground around them. Do not rake (and for the sake of all that is good do not blow) your leaves. Create paths if you like. It's the cycle. Repeat. Do drive yourself and everyone around you bonkers with leaf blowers. Enjoy the peace. Enjoy the fall. Enjoy the quiet. Relax.
Silvery Moon (Upstate NY)
@Will. You can’t leave a 6” carpet of leaves covering your lawn. The leaves don’t decompose for a long time and they don’t blow away. So you end up with a sludge of rotting leaves smothering the grass, and it’s crummy to walk in and full of crud and ticks. I wish it weren’t so.
@SilveryMoon Yes, it’s really about the ratio of leaves to land. I’d have at least 6” of leaves. I could rent a leaf shredder and use a portion of the leaves for cover, but I’d be buried if I just tried to leave everything where it falls and relax!
Full Name (New York)
@silvery moon I live upstate and mow the leaves into the lawn. Works great. Gets rid of the leaves, and fertilizes the lawn. I used to blow and bag and then eureka read about mowing leaves and it was a brilliant easy solution. I do it and my lawn guy does it for me now!
Stacie (Nyc)
More information on that glass greenhouse please! Beautiful.
Mary Kinney (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
What is the name of the zinnia in the indoor arrangement?
@Mary Kinney the look like a mix of queen lime and queen red lime zinnia
ellienyc (New York city)
@Mary Kinney Maybe Home Depot? At least they look like the zinnias I grew this year with seeds from Home Depot. As a matter of fact, I was out on my terrace today starting to clean up and realized I still had quite a few late season zinnias and cosmos. So now I too have a sweet little flower arrangement (mine is smaller) of zinnias, cosmos, basil, sage and another herb or two.
Mary Kinney (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
@AK Thanks, AK. Looked up the names at Johnny’s Seeds and will order.
Plato (The Cave)
This is one of my favorite times of the year in the garden. The bloom is gone, you can literally HEAR leaves falling from the trees, and everything around us portends the arrival of winter. However, my forever hardy rosemary and thyme don't seem to mind the lower temps and less sunshine. Lean into it!
Meighan Corbett (Westchester County NY)
This is a very highly maintained garden. Not for most of us, I think, unless we have a staff. Perhaps next time, a garden that is not so meticulously maintained. Doesn’t go along with the title.
Lisa (NYC)
The photos sure are gorgeous, but this piece doesn't seem so much to be a 'how-to' for our Fall gardens as much as... one big plug for Mr. Bevacqua's business.
Adg23 (Brooklyn)
i was excited to read this and then found it utterly useless for someone with a normal yard/garden and frankly somewhat incomprehensible as a whole. bummer.
two cents (Chicago)
'How to Do a More Conscious Fall Cleanup' Where is that story? Did not find any advice on that topic in the piece.
chrisinroch (Rochester ny)
@two cents It's in the last few paragraphs. It's a very misleading title, and I was hoping for more.
David (Melrose, ma)
Another NYTs article for the 1%. I'll try to remember to intentiionally rake my leaves this year.
Observer (New York)
Leave them where they fell. That's it.
Frank (Alabama)
@Observer God put those leaves where they are. Who am I to move them?
R.F. (Shelburne Falls, MA)
@Observer No. mulch them up with your mower first, then leave them
David (Short Hills, NJ)
@Observer ...and the ones that fall on the lawn should be mowed over (and not bagged) regularly.
lisa (it's complicated)
Thank you for the garden porn! Great reminder to slow down and enjoy the process of putting my garden to bed in the fall. I respect the thought and dedication that Mr. Bevacqua (and Mr. King) have put into their property and creating a gorgeous vista, and sharing it with the public every year.
The Poet McTeagle (California)
How deep and wide a pot for lily bulbs? Big fan of chop-and-drop. Keeps green waste out of a landfill, no need to lug clippings to the bin, and purchased mulch is more and more expensive, it being based on the price of transportation costs.
Andrew Ford (Milford NJ)
As a longtime gardener, lucky enough to have spent the last 44 years in one place, and thankfully, nimble enough to do all the work myself, I can’t help but wonder how many laborers, and how much money has gone into this impressive site. I’m imagining at least a half dozen workers, and $100,000 for starters. It would be helpful to know what is needed financially to create such a landscape.
North Carolina Observer (North Carolina)
" . . . r how many laborers . . ." My immediate thought exactly, as soon as I saw those beautifully clipped hedges and then skimmed through the article, knowing there would be little I could take-away from this article.
Claudia (PA)
Looks beautiful! But doesn’t the gravel on the terrace tend to "migrate" everywhere - and is crunchy underfoot, difficult for furniture/chairs? Maybe I’m overthinking it…
chrisinroch (Rochester ny)
@Claudia I wondered how deep it is and what is under it. Those green folding chairs will sink (unevenly) if it is of any depth.
Sue (MN)
The bouquet of coleus and dahlias is simply gorgeous.
alyaly (Ft. Collins, CO)
@Sue I agree with you, but I believe the flowers in the arrangement are zinnias, not dahlias :).
Annessey (Girl from the North Country)
Beautiful, curated areas. The coleus arrangement is exquisite. Nice article and photos.
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