A person raking fall leaves into a pile
(Image credit: Maksym Belchenko)

Fall is a great time for garden chores. This is the time to clean up before winter, protect vulnerable plants, and wind down the growing season. This isn’t the right time for all tasks, though. Know what to do with your garden in the fall and what not to do — for instance, what plants should not be cut back in the fall — to best prepare it for next year.

What to Do to Your Garden in the Fall

Fall is a great time of year for many chores. The weather is cooler, plants are beginning to go dormant, and the prep work you do now will affect your garden next spring and summer. Here’s what you should do in the garden in fall.

Do Leave the Leaves

Cleaning up fallen leaves is probably the most common fall gardening or yard chore. Leaving a layer of dead leaves on grass can harm turf grass by blocking sunlight and trapping moisture. On the other hand, leaves can benefit beds and lawns by adding nutrients. Instead of bagging and disposing of leaves, mulch them with the mower and let them decompose. Or simply leave them where they fall to provide habitat for overwintering beneficial insects.

Do Protect Tender Plants

Depending on what you grow and your climate, you might have some plants that will survive the winter with some added protection. Provide these plants with fabric covers or windbreaks for the little extra warmth they need to make it.

Do Put (Clean) Tools Away

Clean all your garden tools and dry them thoroughly before storing them for the winter. Keep them in a dry location to avoid rust and deterioration. If you have a lawn mower, clean it well and perform any needed maintenance, like an oil change, before storing.

Do Fertilize Cool-Season Grass Lawns

Fall is a perfect time to fertilize turf grass. As the weather turns, grass stops growing but the roots continue to take up nutrients. Apply fertilizer in mid- to late-fall.

Do Mulch Your Garden

Touch up or apply mulch to beds in fall to protect plants from frost heave. This occurs when soil repeatedly freezes and thaws and can be damaging to roots. Mulch helps keep the soil at a more consistent temperature.

Do Plant Bulbs for Spring

Plant your spring bulbs so you can enjoy flowers next spring: daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, crocuses, and more. These are the hardy bulbs that need a cold period to bloom next year.

What NOT to Do to Your Garden in the Fall

Just as important as what to do is what you should not do in the garden in fall. A list of gardening dos and don’ts must include these do nots of fall chores.

Don’t Cut Back All Your Perennials

It’s tempting to cut back perennials for a cleaner look. This is only necessary in the fall if the foliage is diseased. Remove this plant material and dispose of it. You can also cut back seedheads if you don’t want certain plants reseeding. Otherwise, keep plants in place to feed and house wildlife, and provide winter interest.

Don’t Prune Trees and Shrubs

Fall is not the time for pruning. Pruning trees and shrubs now promotes new growth that will be vulnerable to wind and cold damage in the winter. Save it for late winter or early spring.

Don’t Leave Annuals in the Garden

Unlike perennials, annuals should be removed. The decaying plant matter can breed disease and provide overwintering habitat for pests.

Don’t Put Diseased Debris in Your Compost Pile

If you trim off diseased branches or remove perennials that look infected, do not put that material in your compost pile. You’ll only spread disease. If allowed in your area, you can burn these plants, or dispose of as you would garbage.

Don’t Forget Where You Planted Your Vegetables

Keep vegetable labels in the ground, or make a detailed plan of your vegetable bed. Crop rotation is a useful way to reduce the risk of disease.

Don’t Stop Watering Plants

Don’t completely cut plants off from water in the fall. Reduce watering to prepare them for the dormant season. It’s especially important to water any newly planted trees or shrubs to help them develop strong root systems.

Follow these dos and don’ts of gardening to end the growing season on a positive note and for good results next season.

Mary Ellen Ellis

Mary Ellen Ellis has been gardening for over 20 years. With degrees in Chemistry and Biology, Mary Ellen's specialties are flowers, native plants, and herbs.