Sunday, October 18, 2020

Fall Tasks in the Garden: Your Questions Answered

Eastern Bluebird greets me each morning near the potting shed

As the beautiful Pocono mountains take on their legendary colors following the arrival of the first frost, home gardeners ask me questions about fall tasks. Here are my answers to three concerns that I hear year-after-year. I will answer more of these questions in my next post. My goal is to make 'putting the garden to bed' easier and pave the way for an early start on next year's garden.

Autumn in my Pocono garden at Astolat Farm

Do I have to cut down everything?

Answer: Some plants should be left standing. After the first killing frost, pull out annuals and plant debris from the kitchen garden. Throw plants on the compost, except for any diseased material which should bagged and placed in the trash. I don't cut down perennials that add interest to the winter landscape, such as ornamental grasses with tall plumes. Some plants provide seeds for birds, so I leave them standing. For example, goldfinches love the seed heads of purple cone flower. Many perennials help beneficial insects in winter by providing shelter from their predators. Don't cut back marginally hardy plants like garden mums (Chrysanthemum spp.) as their tops help them survive the cold of winter. There is no need to cut back low-growing evergreen or semi-evergreen perennials such as hardy geraniums, heucheras, hellebores, and moss phlox. You must cut down diseased plants such as bee balm (Monarda) with powdery mildew. Remember to destroy, not compost, diseased stems and leaves.

American Goldfinch eating seeds of purple cone flower in my cottage garden

My favorite ornamental grass picture. I'm glad I didn't cut it down in autumn.

I don't cut back hardy mum (Chrysanthemum 'Sheffield Pink')

How do I prevent tender plants from dying in the winter?

Answer: You know you need to bring your houseplants indoors. Dig up tender bulbs such as cannas, caladiums, dahlias, elephants ears, gladiolus, calla lily, and tuberous begonias and store them where they will not freeze. Pack them in boxes of sawdust or peat moss. You may want to save seeds from your favorite non-hybrid plants. See my post about heirloom seeds HERE. Find a place in the garage or basement for shrubs or trees that you are growing in pots, especially Japanese maples (Acer spp.) Sometimes I have plants in their nursery pots, still unplanted, in the fall. For these I dig holes in the empty vegetable garden beds and heel them in. I protect roses and newly planted shrubs with burlab windbreaks. You can spray the leaves of broadleaf evergreen shrubs with an anti-desiccant to prevent moisture-loss caused by cold weather conditions because when the ground is frozen, evergreens can't replace moisture loss through their leaves. Use mulch, such as three to five inches of straw, to insulate plant roots from severe winter temperatures.

Dig up tender bulbs such as dahlias. Picture taken in Jenny Rose Carey's garden.

Dahlia 'Mikayla Miranda'

Must I rake all the leaves?

Answer: Ecologically speaking you do not need to rake leaves, but a heavy layer can smother your lawn grass and prevent new growth in the spring. Compacted leaves can promote snow mold diseases that damage turf grass. The easiest way to treat leaves on your lawn is to pass over them with a mower a few times to shred them into small pieces. This method will return nitrogen to the soil as the clipped leaves decompose. In the garden, you can leave them where they fall, so they help insulate plant roots. If you want to remove leaves from your garden, add them to your compost pile rather than bagging them and hauling them away.

You don't have to remove leaves from your garden. Leave them where they fall to insulate roots.


I receive many more question: Can I plant anything in the fall? What is a cover crop? How do I winterize the pond? I don't need to weed in the fall, do I? I will answer these questions in part two of this blog posting.

I am wondering how you are all doing as these stressful times continue? I hope you are well, as we are. I do have some more sad news for you, though. My gentle goat, Billy, passed away peacefully in his sleep last week. He was the faithful companion of my first mini horse, Dude. He was 15 years old. I miss him so much. 


Billy and Dude napping in the sun on a snowy day.

If you live where it is autumn now and the leaves change color, enjoy the beautiful fall foliage as you 'put your garden to bed.' You can look forward to a rest from gardening tasks this winter knowing that you have made a good start to the next growing season.

Stay safe and healthy!

Love, Pamela x 


Billy Goat as a Baby

A brave foxglove continues to bloom sheltered by a smoke bush.


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I look forward to visiting your blog in return.


  1. A very informative post! That 'Sheffield Pink' mum and the lavender tipped dahlia are gorgeous. Swoon.

  2. Some great advice in this post. Oh Pam, I'm so sorry to read about Billy. You know how I've always enjoyed seeing photos of your companions in your posts over the years, so very sad. Sending hugs xx

    1. Thanks, Jo. Fifteen years is a long time to have a pet and we were very attached. We now have only one goat, young Doodles. He looks very sad and confused. We hope to find him a companion very soon.

  3. There's a lot of good information there. My garden doesn't actually get "put to bed" until December, if then, but, of course, some plants are fading now and will need care before then. It is so sad to lose a beloved animal companion. Been there so many times and my heart goes out to you.

    1. Thank you, Dorothy, for your kind words. I don't know if I could keep on gardening until December or longer. My old bones are ready to take a rest.

  4. Great post and advice Pam. I have been out in the garden starting to tidy up, but only a few things for now. I am so sorry to hear about Billy. Hold all the fond memories close to your heart.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Lee. I have a great deal of work to do in the garden,yet. My husband and I are planning to cut back perennials on the next two mild days. Then we have to put ornaments etc. away. This task always makes me feel sad, but I am ready to spend less time gardening and more time writing.

  5. So sorry to read about Billy...

    Lovely photographs, I just love the Autumn season.

    All the best Jan

    1. Thank you, Jan. I love it too, although spring is my favorite season -- so full of promise.

  6. Sorry to hear about Billy. This year is hard.