Fall Yard Clean Up: The Ultimate Guide To Autumn Yard Work

Fall yard clean up makes a big difference preparing your garden for winter. A good fall clean up will lead to a more productive growing season next year as well as a healthier lawn. Let’s look at the fall garden yard work chores that will help keep your garden happy and healthy.

There are a few key areas of the yard to focus on when preparing the garden for winter. Here are the basic lawn & garden categories that require some clean-up in the fall:

  1. Trees and Shrubs
  2. Lawn
  3. Annual Vegetable Garden
  4. Flower Gardens

Each one of these garden areas has it’s own tasks that will set you up for a great growing year in the spring. Now let’s look at each category in detail. Scroll down for a detailed description of fall garden chores!

Fall leaves in early autumn around blooming hydrangea shrubs in September

Fall Clean-Up Yark Work Chores for Trees & Shrubs

These fall garden clean up tasks will get your trees and shrubs ready for cold weather:

  • Collect and shred fallen leaves with a mulching lawnmower or powerful leaf vacuum. Compost the shredded leaves into leaf mold compost or use them to as a protective organic mulch over top of tender perennials once the ground freezes. Fall leaves are organic gardening gold!
  • Wrap tender perennial shrubs with burlap to prepare them for winter by protecting them from desiccating cold winds. Ensure that you wrap them in such a way that snow/ice will not gather on top of the wrapped shrub, crushing it. I like to put stakes around the plant and then wrap the stakes with burlap or chicken wire rather than directly wrapping the plant.
  • Early fall can be a great time to plant new trees and shrubs. The trees will appreciate the temperate autumn weather, as it will allow them to establish some roots before they go dormant during the winter. Try to get new trees in the ground at least six weeks before the ground freezes to allow the roots the chance to become established before dormancy. You can even buy bare-root trees online for fall planting.
  • Keep trees well-watered in the fall, especially evergreen trees. Evergreens continue to lose water from their needles throughout the winter. Trees should have no shortage of water before going dormant. If the fall has not been very rainy, or if you have trees in protected dry areas, give them a good watering before the ground freezes as part of your list to prep the garden for winter.

A Note on Fall Pruning

Don’t add pruning to your list of fall yard work clean-up chores. Fall is the worst time to prune trees and shrubs. Pruning encourages plants to grow more, which is not what they need when they are about to go dormant. Let the trees focus their energy for the upcoming dormant season rather than sparking new growth. 

Only dead, diseased, or damaged wood should be pruned off in the fall. Wait until the plants are completely dormant before undertaking any other serious pruning. Pruning is definitely not part of fall yard clean up or of preparing the garden for winter!

Flowering shrubs should be approached with extra caution over the winter as some shrubs put on flower buds the year before. This means that for some cultivars, flower buds that form this summer will bloom next summer. This category includes some hydrangeas and magnolias, as well as many other shrubs and trees that flower early. Pruning for these flowering shrubs should occur in early summer right after flowering if you don’t want to reduce the number of flowers the next year. Let’s not do any accidental fall yard work clean-up of next year’s lovely flowers!

Fall in the perennial border garden - clean up tasks for lawn and garden

Fall Yard Work Clean-Up Chores for the Lawn

Don’t forget the lawn in your fall yard clean up! Turf grass maintenance is a key part of fall yard work. Early fall is a great time to repair bare patches or seed new lawn areas.

  • Cut the lawn to 3″ high during the fall months, before the ground freezes. Ensuring the grass is at least 3″ high will help the lawn develop strong roots for the upcoming year. Use a mulching mower rather than raking up the grass cuttings. The cuttings return nitrogen to the grass plants, feeding the lawn after a cutting. The last cut before winter can be a tad shorter to allow for a bit of growth while the lawnmower is stored away.
  • Rake up leaves that fall on lawn grass. Leaves will smother the grass if they are allowed to create a mat. Leaves make an excellent, nutrient-rich leaf mold compost and also can be used as shredded mulch over tender perennials.
  • If your soil is compact, aerate the lawn with a core aerator. This machine can be rented for an afternoon from a local tool rental business (or this fall yard work task can be contracted out). The core aerator removes small deep plugs from the lawn and deposits them on top of the soil, introducing air voids into the lawn to decompress it. When you’re done, it will look like your lawn has goose droppings on it for a few weeks unless you really rake in the plugs. Another option is to follow core aeration with an application of compost:
  • Feed the lawn with a thin top dressing of good-quality nitrogen-rich compost. Rake it over the lawn and allow the fall rains to wash the nutrients down into the roots of the grass. If you can’t find a high-quality source of compost, or don’t have the fall leaves available for leaf mold, there are also some helpful slow-release organic lawn fertilizers that can be used in early fall.
  • Overseed any thin spots of the lawn. While planting new, high-quality grass seeds doesn’t exactly sound like the best way to prep the garden for winter, it can really help. Fall is the best time to establish new cool-season grass plants, including the varieties we grow in Canada, provided they have enough time to develop roots before the ground freezes. Try to overseed in early fall once the intense heat of summer is gone, but at least six weeks before the ground freezes.
how to clean up a vegetable garden in the fall

Fall Clean Up in the Vegetable Garden

The vegetable garden is one area of yard work that really does need quite a bit of attention in the fall. Here’s how to approach fall clean up in the vegetable garden to ensure the space is ready for next year:

  • Do one last round of weeding in your kitchen garden to get the garden ready for winter. Removing weeds (and weed seeds) is a key part of fall yard clean-up as it will make next spring much easier!
  • Once the weeds are removed, observe the remaining vegetable plants and decide if any should be left up over winter for beneficial creature habitat or for their food value for wildlife. Tall seed heads can also be quite pretty to look at during a snowy winter.
  • Save seeds from any treasured plants such as heirloom tomatoes or a favourite type of pumpkin.
  • Remove spent annual plants from the garden and compost the plant debris. If you haven’t already, make note of what did well and what didn’t in your Garden Planner. This will help you as you plan next year’s garden. Pretty much everything can be composted in a small compost pile except for diseased plants, weeds with seeds, and woody plant stalks.
  • Stock the compost pile. A large, hot compost pile will be able to destroy diseases, weeds, and woody stalks, but unless you are confident that your compost will get very hot, leave these few things out of the compost pile. Green plants from the garden are a good source of nitrogen that will balance nicely with the carbon in fall leaves. Fall leaves plus some green vegetable plants can make a perfect compost pile.
  • Any fallen and rotting fruit and/or veggies can be composted along with the fall leaves and garden debris as part of fall yard work.
  • Rake out the garden to ensure you’ve got all the weeds out and to leave a smooth, clean surface for next spring.
  • Top dress the soil with 1″ thick layer of compost by raking high-quality compost over the soil surface. If you don’t have your own homemade compost, compost can be purchased online.
  • If you’re feeling fancy, you can plant your garden space with a “green-manure” cover crop in the fall. These crops are grown over the colder months and then tilled into the soil in the spring, providing a source of nutrients to next year’s garden. You’ll get that uniform, clean surface without the uncomfortable-ness of bare soil.
  • In early fall, hardy greens like kale can be planted for a winter harvest, provided temperatures don’t get too cold.
  • Garlic is planted in the fall in many areas. Getting the garlic planting bed ready is always an early task during fall yard clean up! The cloves are planted in September in our area (or October in warmer areas such as the West Coast), and then harvested in early summer. Try to plant the garlic about 6 weeks before the ground freezes to allow it to take root before winter arrives.
Collecting and saving seeds as part of fall yard clean up

Flower Garden Fall Clean Up

Some fall clean up in the flower garden will make next spring much more enjoyable. Here’s tips for fall yard work in flower gardens:

  • Do one last round of weeding in any formal garden beds.
  • Collect seeds from your favourite flower plants.
  • Consider leaving some plants up for beneficial wildlife habitat or for winter food forage for birds. If you don’t mind the look of the stalks and seed pods, leave them up until spring. The foliage and stalks will provide winter interest to the garden, as well as food and habitat for overwintering beneficial birds and insects. It’s a good excuse not to go overboard when preparing the garden for winter!
  • Remove spent annual plants from the garden and compost the plant debris.
  • Cut down stalks from any messy herbaceous perennials. These are flowers that come back every year, but the stems die back to the ground in the winter.
  • Protect tender perennial flowers by mulching with several inches of shredded leaves to prep the garden for winter. Apply mulch just as the ground freezes for the winter. Read more about winterizing perennial plants in this article.
  • Collect natural craft items you’ll use during the winter such as sticks, foliage, and dried flowers.
  • Dig up and store tender flowers such as dahlia tubers. These tender roots can be stored in peat moss in the basement over the winter, for planting outside next year.
  • Plant hardy fall bulbs such as tulips and allium for a show of blooms in the spring.
  • Top dress the garden with 1″ thick layer of compost by raking high-quality compost over the soil surface.
Prepared Planting Bed - fall is the time to set your garden up for success next spring!

Some Extra Fall Yard Clean Up Chores

Here’s a few extra fall yard clean up chores to prep the lawn and garden for winter:

  • Bring tender potted plants indoors. In our area, this includes potted citrus trees, rosemary, and many types of succulents. Anything perennial that isn’t “hardy to your zone” should be taken indoors as part of fall yard clean up.
  • Bring in empty plant containers to a protected area such as a shed or garage to guard them from the elements. Terra cotta and ceramic pots are prone to damage in freeze/thaw cycles and should be treated carefully in areas that freeze over the winter.
  • Clean seed starting trays that you wish to use next spring for seedlings. I disinfect mine and store them in the basement over the winter months so they don’t crack. Then the trays are also easy to find when I’m ready to start some seedlings in the early spring.
  • Take a bag of sterile seed-starting potting soil indoors if you’ll require access to potting soil during the winter months. Chipping frozen soil out of a bag is no fun (speaking from experience…). It can be hard to find seed-starting soil in January and February, as it’s usually only stocked in local stores in March (in our area). Here is an article all about how to store potting soil over winter.
  • Clean and store garden tools so they are in working order when you need them next spring. Bring any tools you’ll need for indoor gardening inside and store the outdoor tools well. Try to leave them in an organized manner if you can…it’ll be a lot easier to deal with if you need to access “just one tool” over the winter.
Fall Yard Clean Up - The Ultimate Homeowners Guide

Had your fill of fall yard work?…

One final tip is that autumn is a great time to support your local Farmers and Nurseries! Farmers often have huge crops to sell at this time of year, and often sell what they have for a very good price. You won’t find produce of the same quality at other times of the year, so it’s worth buying in bulk from the Farmers Market and freezing/canning your haul for use over the winter.

Nurseries also have very good sales at this time of year as they try to clear out space for next year. Many perennials can be purchased for a bargain, and will appreciate being planted in the cooler months. It’s a win-win for fall yard work!

Tools for fall yard clean up and other autumn outdoor tasks

Mary Jane

Mary Jane is a home gardener who loves creating healthy, welcoming spaces (indoors and out!) - About Mary Jane (https://www.homefortheharvest.com/authors/about-mary-jane-duford/)

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