What Not to Do ? What to Do ? Containers ? Mulch ? Winterizing Compost

This is the most important litany of the autumn season: Don?t be too tidy. There are times when it?s far more valuable to let things alone than to rush about raking the soil bare, or gathering up every last leaf grooming the garden to a fare-thee-well. The idea of putting it to bed shouldn?t be taken too literally. But this season is no excuse for being lazy either. The grand theory of an autumnal clean up is to leave stuff for birds, good bugs and the comfort of plants but not to shelter those we hate like slugs and earwigs.

What Not to Do

  • Don?t let squishy leaves lie around to rot on the ground. Hostas and other large-leaved plants are the perfect place for slugs to make a lively winter retreat. They should be picked up (both leaves and squashed slugs) and tossed into the compost.
  • Don?t let diseased leaves drop or put them into the compost. Black spot on roses, for instance, is a fungus and when affected leaves hit the ground, they will infect the soil where there?s a really good chance of being re-absorbed by the plant. Get rid of anything that looks sick or diseased. This stuff should go into a separate bag that?s not meant for public composting.
  • Don?t cut most perennials back too close to the surface of the soil. This may leave areas where bugs can enter and winter over. I like the look of lots of stalks to catch the light. It animates the garden all winter long. In fact I tend to err on the side of caution and chop back only those things I think will be damaged by fierce winds.
  • Don?t go into pruning mode this late in the year. New growth will run the risk of being felled by frost. Leave woody plants, trees, shrubs, artemisias, vines, in fact, anything with a thick stem, alone.
  • Don?t chop back plants with seed heads and berries. This includes vines and shrubs as well as perennials. They serve as valuable winter forage for birds. I have never seen the elderberry so heavily laden or with such magnificent black berries. They were stripped by birds in one day. Guests to the garden took this as one of the many signs that it?s going to be a tough winter ahead.

What to Do

  • You can start by planting bulbs in the next few weeks. I have it on the good authority of a hortbuddy that Critter Ridder actually works in keeping squirrels away from newly planted areas. It smells like a large creature and these territorial beasts will avoid it. The deeper you plant bulbs, the less likely they will be dug up and the later they will come up next spring.
  • I do next to nothing with my roses but they are all extremely hardy and, apart from a little mulching, they really don?t need much else. Climbers should be fastened to walls or bent over so that they don?t whip around. Finicky roses should be hilled up with soil. I?ve seen all sorts of other methods used (cages filled with soil and leaves) but it might mean that mice could get in there and gnaw away. Whatever you do, wait until spring before pruning.
  • Trees have been hit badly by the drought that?s plagued many parts of the country. You?ll recognize the signs of severe stress by drooping leaves, leaves turning prematurely brown or falling off with no shift in colour. This is one way a tree has of protecting itself so that energy for survival is all going into the root system. To help trees and shrubs out, give them a good deep soak. Don?t bother with trying anything except dribbling in and it means just that ? a long very, very slow flow of water. This will help them get through the winter with well-watered roots. Important as this is for deciduous trees and any other recent planting, it?s crucial for evergreens and broad-leaf evergreens such as kalmias and rhodos. They will transpire all winter and need every reserve they can call on. You might give evergreens a good hit of Wilt-Pruf to help preserve moisture in the needles as well.
  • Lawns: the last mow should have already taken place. This is a great time to spread around high quality grass seed. Do it evenly and if there are bald patches evident, scratch up the soil, add seeds and then spread compost or well-composted manure around on top. Once again water deeply.
  • Most leaves can be raked up to cover beds as long as they don?t form a matted blanket (some of the large maple leaves shouldn?t be left around). If you don?t like the look of leaf litter or are fearful that they will simply blow away, rake them into piles and get a mulching mower to shred them as finely as possible. These can be kept in garbage bags for the winter or until you need them during the winter. Make a few holes in the bags for ventilation, add a spadeful of compost and it?s amazing how well they break down even before they get into the compost pile.
  • If you have a water feature in the garden, take out the pump and, after cleaning out any muck on the filter, store it in a dry place. If it looks like leaves will fall into your pond, pool or watercourse, cover the surface with a fine nylon mesh to catch the leaves. Once they?ve finished dropping it?s easy to lift the mesh and rid of them all at once.
  • It?s a drag, but now?s a great time to pull up weeds. Compost any that look healthy but haven?t got seeds on them.
  • Clean up your tools before you store them. Carburetor cleaner is really effective. Use the finest grade of steel wool, a little carburetor cleaner on the surface and scape away rust, muck from plants and dirt. You will be truly grateful next spring when you get a really major cleaning job to perform.


  • Clean out all those pots where the plants have been bitten by frost and look sad and black. Toss the contents into the winter compost pile. Wash the pots out and stack them up with newspapers between each and store in a place where they can be kept dry. There is, however, still time to have a really lovely autumn arrangement with late chrysanthemums, ornamental cabbages and kale so don?t ignore that possibility. To make them last as long as possible, empty containers, and surround the inside with insulation and then proceed to plant as usual. This will take them well into winter or until hard frost eliminates them altogether.
  • A good winter arrangement can be made with following the above and then planting with boxwood and ivy
  • Pots with perennials in them can be given a final watering, surrounded by newspapers or bubble wrap and stored in a place where they are off the ground, out of the reach of any moisture and safe from winter winds. These pots should be more than 35 cm wide for any hope of survival.


  • Mulching, especially in areas of uneven snow cover (still the best mulch there is), is extremely important. It saves plants from the ravages of freeze-thaw cycles. If snow thaws, as it turns to ice again, it expands and can heave a plant right out of its space. Mulching will provide a blanket to keep temperatures even. Do this once there?s been a hard frost so that the mulch doesn?t become a haven for overwintering critters.
  • Never place mulch too close to the stems of woody plants especially trees and shrubs so that it presents a snug place for mice to hang out and feed all winter. Any plants with rosettes should be treated the same way since it will encourage them to rot.
  • Here?s a handy tip: If you have a 2-gallon or bigger pot, slit one side and cut off the bottom and put it around woody plants and then mulch around that. It will act as a form and you can pile up the mulch leaving breathing room for the plant.
  • My favourite mulch is the following: one-third each of ground-up leaves, compost and cocofibre. It sits on the ground without blowing away and doesn?t take the hours and hours of soaking that peat moss does. It also looks good which is something one wants given how long our winters are.
    [Cocofibre is a renewable resource but it?s not always easy to find. Check with The Green Man, Box 160, Station B, Toronto M5T 2T3; 416-504-6588; Fax 416-504-6587 for sources.]

Winterizing Compost

  • Aha, you thought composting was over but it?s not. If you?ve got a pile that?s been cooking away all summer, start screening it now. I have round forms fitted with fine chicken wire that sit on the top of bushel baskets. These are easy to use and tremendously useful. Large stuff gets tossed back, as do the little red wrigglers that actually do all the work. These little guys won?t survive in garden soil since they need the warmth of the compost. Finished or not, compost can be bagged and made ready to create winter mulch at this stage.
  • To make sure your compost will keep on percolating through the winter, have a pile of leaves, kitchen and garden waste at least a metre high (1.2 is best) and the same wide to get a head of steam up before it gets too cold. Dump some ground up leaves on the top so it?s easy to keep burying kitchen parings in it all winter long. This is the problem I find with most ditsy little compost bins ? just won?t heat up enough.

This is a glorious season and most of these chores aren?t very onerous. If there?s one thing I believe in it?s that gardening should be fun and not a big fat pain. I tend to go at this very slowly savouring every minute of pungent air and clear sunlight.