Q: Why do garden books make such a big deal about fall cleanup? It seems so obvious. Is there really more to it than getting rid of all the old brush and dead plants? — Joan Brown, Middleton, Ind.
A: Well, there’s weeding, and that’s no small thing. Issues of neatness aside, you can clean out dead stems and dried-up plants as easily at the end of winter as in the fall. But weeds are different. Fall is the best time to attack and extract cool-season weeds like henbit and chickweed. The longer you wait, the harder the job becomes. After the ground freezes — or gets muddy, if you’re blessed with a garden in the South — you may not have another chance to weed for weeks, even months. In the meantime, those nefarious winter weeds keep growing and setting seed even beneath the snow.
The list of chores lumped together under the rubric “fall garden cleanup” is a long one, and most tasks have little to do with making the garden a tidier place. It seems to mean tackling any leftover projects on your to-do list, and, dull as that sounds, it’s a wise idea. Get that soil test done (finally), and sleep the easy sleep of the righteous. Stuff insulating mulch around the stems of tender tea roses. Take the mower and blower into the shop for a tune-up and a new set of plugs. This is the right time for those chores, not April, when all of suburbia is standing in line with engines that won’t start. But the real point of “cleanup” is to prepare the ground for spring planting. When the first break in the winter comes, you’ll want to move quickly. If you weed the ground properly now and maybe dig and rake a little so that it looks like a seed bed, you’ll be ready, when the weather breaks enough to hint “planting time,” to toss out some arugula seed, to push in some nuggets like peas or shallots, or to scatter a dusting of poppy seed. Spring is a head-spinning time, when everything is possible and all chores are clamoring for your attention and energy. It’s a shame to waste it on weeding.
In the vegetable garden and annual beds, go at it with a hoe and bucket. To speed this work, first remove any obstructions — take down and store trellises or tomato cages — and rake up any frost-killed stalks. Now you can proceed methodically. With a hoe, scrape off the weedlings just below the soil surface rather than chop up the ground, because any weeds that are only half buried will regrow later. Toss the weeds onto the compost heap.
Before you start weeding perennial beds, roses, and other shrubs, you may — or may not — want to remove all the dead perennial stalks. Some people keep the stalks of plants like sedum, rudbeckia, and, certainly, the ornamental grasses because they add interest in an otherwise stark winter landscape. Dead stalks can also hold snow in place: a good insulation around marginally hardy plants. On the other hand, some dead perennial stalks are not that attractive. (One person’s winter meadow can be another’s idea of a mess.) If you don’t like them, cut them all back before you start weeding. Among perennials and shrubs you’re also likely to find perennial weeds: dandelion, quackgrass, or sorrel. Forget the hoe. Dig out all the roots with a spading fork. Then dress the beds with organic mulch. It will smother any weeds you have only half killed, and it will encourage any perennials to keep growing roots and so be better prepared for regeneration in the spring.