Relax and smell the leaf mould

Tidying as you go is half the fun ? Containers ? Pruning ? Winter Protection ? Watering ? Divide & Conquer ? Planting Now ? Mulching and More

Do no harm is a tenet not just for doctors, it applies equally to gardeners. This time of year with a brilliant snap to the air and some of the most evocative aromas of the year wafting about, the desire to get outside and tidy up seems to overwhelm Canadians. Get out those leaves, scrap the ground bare, sweep it all into the garbage. But wait – don?t get over exuberant about your autumn chores. Less in this season can, indeed, be more when it comes to winter safety. It is the sensual pleasure of the garden and the minute details of nature?s most extravagant time of year are what you should be enjoying, not heaving into a dreary job. It really is okay not to do too very much. There are, however, a few essentials that can?t be ignored. Instead of whacking back all those perennials, leave the seedheads alone for the birds, or use a few in arrangements indoors or outside. The same goes for ornamental grasses that are coming into their own right now. The will animate the garden all winter long.

Tidying as you go is half the fun

Pick up all the junk you?ve left around the garden and clean up tools. If you have good equipment take good care of it: rub with the finest of steel wool and some oil to remove mud and accumulated rust from secateurs, shovels and trowels.

Cut back the foliage of hostas and peonies and other large-leaf plants: but only after they?ve gone seriously brown. Mushy foliage will attract slugs and sowbugs and give them a lovely place to over winter.

Clean out the compost. Remove the worms and toss them back into any unfinished compost. They won?t survive in the garden Use a rough sieve (there are plenty on the market) and run the compost through it. You?ll be taking out all the large bits and pieces, and then it?s easy to spot worms. Left in the compost, they will keep on functioning all winter long.

Let fallen leaves lie on the ground, unless they form an impenetrable mat. The important point here is that moisture should be able to percolate through this natural blanket. Scrape off some of the leaves, put them into bags with a small amount of soil or compost. Store near the compost for the winter. They will start to break down, and will be available when you need them to top up the pile. If you have enough material in your composter it will be cooking away all winter long. Just burrow a hole into the middle and add kitchen parings all winter long. This will keep feeding the worms. Pile leaves on top if it starts to shrink. Once things start to freeze up, I usually put leftover bags of leaves on top of the compost just to make sure it?s keeping warm and active. Otherwise they make ideal protection for large perennial-filled containers. I have a friend who does absolutely nothing to his garden in autumn and it looks just fine to me. The bulbs will find their way through the leaves and eventually they disappear anyway (worms at work)

Any leaves that look blighted (rust spots or other fungal diseases) should be picked up even it you have to do it by hand. On the ground they will guarantee infections next year. Get them, along with mouldy fruit or canes right out of the garden (not into the compost). Fungi such as Botrytis lives on fruit and will overwinter where it falls to the ground.


This is the only truly dreary task of fall: dump all the soil and shove it evenly over the top of the compost and then scour pots clean. I?ve started to invest in large new ones (very expensive) pots capable of staying outdoors all winter. These should have any leaching chemicals washed off, and be placed on chocks or bricks so they are off the ground. If you don?t have a compost, stockpile it for mulch later on.

This year, for me, has been one long experiment with perennials in containers. But now comes the problem of what to do about the plants. Some can be popped into the ground but the rest will have to stay in their pots. I?m planning to put them in a shed up on bricks so that they won?t run the risk of freezing to the ground. I?ve got bubble packing sheets to put around them and after a last good watering, that?s it. If they live fine, if they don?t, I?ll try something different next year. I have, however, had great luck with hostas in 16 inch plastic pots that have lasted for years with even less protection.

Clean out those terra cotta containers before putting them away. Put newspapers, plastic (that old shower liner is always useful) in between and set them upside down in a shed, garage or basement.

If you do have a large empty outdoor container fill it full of cuttings from the garden to make a temporary arrangement: branches of any sort will do nicely as will the elegant long stems of grasses in flower. This will serve as decor until evergreens that will be available in a few weeks.


It?s too late to do any serious pruning right now, and whatever you whack off is going to leave plant vulnerable to changes of temperature. This job can wait until spring

Winter Protection

Don?t whack away at roses, merely tack floppy canes in place. For fussy forms, you can hill them up for protection. This means making a circle with chicken wire or hardware cloth and filling it with leaves. If your roses have been surviving without help, leave them alone and just mulch them as you would any other plant.

There is little more depressing that those great shrouds erected for rhododendrons. If you must do this, make sure that the material you use is attached to bamboo canes (or any upright) set in the ground far enough away so that you don?t mess up the roots. Don?t crowd the plant.


Water in evergreens with a long slow dribble from the hose. They transpire all winter long and anything that hasn?t got enough water will burn in winter suns. Spray them with Wilt-pruf which will also help give some added protection.

Be sure that major trees and shrubs don?t go into the winter dried out. If rain isn?t predicted in the next little while give them a last good water.

Divide and Conquer

You can dig up peonies now and divide them up or replant them. Make sure that they go in so that the eye will be level with the soil. If you plant too deeply they won?t bloom. Mulch. Divide herbaceous plants such as daisies, hostas, mats of asters and phlox after they?ve finished blooming.

Get any weeds that you recognize out of the garden before the soil freezes solid. Rid yourselves of ground covers you?ve come to hate (lily-of-the-valley, violets, creeping Jenny), and cover the empty space with mulch once it freezes.

Planting Now

unless you live in a very warm area or microclimate, it?s too late to put in evergreens. But woody plants are on sale. There?s still time to put in some of the tough but glorious native plants such as Amelanchier (serviceberry) any of the dogwoods (Cornus alternifolia, C. racemosa; C stolonifera); or Symphoricarpos orbiculatus (coralberry).

This is the time of year to stop and smell the asters and the artemisias; if the work doesn?t get done, and if you?ve left no soil bared, don?t fret. Nature has a way of taking care of itself. And it will all be waiting for you in spring.

Mulching and More

Mulch is material that?s placed around plants to keep the temperature of the soil even. If the soil warms up, thaws and then freezes again, chances are plants will be hefted right out of the ground. You can use stones and various other inorganic materials as a mulch but I think organic material made with a combination of compost and ground leaves is ideal. There is now a commercial form of compost and cocofibre (The Green Man 1-888-262-6342) which is excellent.

Protect vulnerable trees. Make sure you have piles of leaf mould or the combination mentioned above to a depth of 10 cm thick piled away from the trunk and let it spread right out to the dripline.

Don?t cover the crowns of plants or you?ll run a risk of them rotting out. The same happens is you pile mulch up against the branches or stems of woody plants.

If you have wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), chop off some of the leaves and make a tea with them. Use this as your last watering of the year around slug?s favourite plants, hostas. I?m convinced it helps and this has been the worst year ever for slugs.

Originally published: Autumn 2000