Shade Gardening in Fall: Fall Clean-up

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

fern bench at Carolyn's Shade GardensI always feel a tension around the time of the first expected killing frost.  Everything in the garden is at its fall peak so I don’t want a frost to ruin it.  But I have a lot of work to do outside before it gets truly cold so I want a killing frost to take it all down.  First thing every morning I look out my bedroom window to see if the much dreaded, much desired frost has occurred.

I clean all my beds out in fall because I am too busy with nursery business to do it in spring.  Just like all my gardening, my fall clean-up has evolved from intensive interference to minimal maintenance.  There have been many epiphanies on this journey, but one of two quintessential ah-ha moments occurred during a 1995 visit to Montrose Nursery in NC (now closed).  They were raking the leaves out of their beds, grinding them up, and throwing them back in, even over the crowns of the perennials.

unground leaves at Carolyn's Shade GardensLeaves on my driveway awaiting grinding

ground leaves at Carolyn's Shade GardensLeaves after grinding with lawn mower

I always knew that my leaves were one of my most valuable garden assets.  I never put them out for the township to collect (I grew up in a family where my father collected other people’s leaves to use in his garden).  However, from 1995 on, I have ground my leaves and used them for mulch as nature intended.  The soil in my beds is incredible because of this practice.

I should mention that it’s actually my husband who grinds the leaves so my other great epiphany occurred last fall when he had shoulder surgery and only ground a small amount of leaves for mulch.  Where to use this precious commodity?

In solving this problem, I developed a priority list for fall clean-up. I no longer hand-clean and mulch all my beds, and my workload has been reduced by about 75%.

First Priority: Only the formal beds on the terraces outside my front door and around the back patio need intensive hand-cleaning and my precious mulch in fall.  Those are the beds closest to the house and the parts of the garden I view all winter from inside.

Patio beds at Carolyn's Shade GardensPatio beds before fall clean-up

patio bed at Carolyn's Shade GardensPatio beds after fall clean-up

Patio Area Carolyn's Shade Gardens Early SpringPatio beds in very early spring

Second priority: Beds near the formal areas are cleaned and mulched along the front only.  I remove old plants from the whole bed but no leaves, which are left to act as mulch and break down on their own.

Third priority: The majority of my garden (my woodland gardens, hosta and epimedium hillside, meadow, and the production beds where I grow plants to sell) receive little to no attention.  I merely rake the paths and cut back very noticeable plants like hostas.  The leaves in the beds are left as mulch.  In spring, I remove any still visible dead plants.

hosta hill at Carolyn's Shade GardensHosta Hill before fall clean-up

Hosta Hill at Carolyn's Shade GardensHosta Hill after fall clean-up

Hosta Hill in spring

Fourth and final priority:  Leaves on the lawn are ground up by the lawn mower and left in place.

Carolyn's Shade Gardens Fall 2010Tree cover at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens

Lest you think this works because my leaf cover is light, you should know that I have 15 one-hundred-year-old London plane trees and many full-grown native black walnuts, ash,  sugar maples, tulip poplars, and oaks—just to mention the most numerous large trees (photo above).  The leaf drop is stupendous, but this system works.  Not only is it less labor intensive, but it’s better for the garden and it’s beautiful.

My favorite labor-saving device, my husband, Michael:

Fall at Carolyn's Shade Gardens


32 Responses to “Shade Gardening in Fall: Fall Clean-up”

  1. muffy kerschner Says:

    First of all, I am very much enjoying your new website.

    With respect to this particular entry, how do you grind up the leaves with the lawnmower? Do you just rake them into a pile and run the mower over them or do you have an attachment to the mower that catches the leaves?
    We’re about to rake the yard into the street and I’m rethinking it based on your entry here. Bear in mind that my yard and gardens are not as extensive as yours, nor is the amount of leaves in my yard. But I have often left leaves in the gardens for the winter only to have to face the clean up in the spring when I would rather come out to clean gardens to start playing in.

    • Hi Muffy. You just rake the leaves into a pile and run over them with the lawn mower–no special attachment required. My husband usually does it on the driveway, but you can also do it on the lawn. Of course, I am sure there are all kinds of fancy equipment you could use to do this but we use a 50-year-old lawnmower that came with our house. I am so excited that I have convinced at least one person to re-use their leaves–you won’t regret it! Carolyn

  2. Lisa Jenkins Says:

    Hi Carolyn,

    I bought a beautiful Callicarpa a few years ago from you, and I absolutely love it! Do I need to cut this back after the berries are gone? Also, plants such as Solomon’s seal – leave them be for winter or cut back?
    And lastly, how would you handle tall sun-loving perennials such as sedum and phlox?

    Thanks for blogging!

    • Hi Lisa. I usually cut the Callicarpa back in the spring after it leafs out to shape it, but you could cut it back now too. Solomon’s seal turns a ghostly golden white color this time of year and can look quite pretty. You can cut it back or leave it as winter interest. If the phlox and sedum are no longer doing anything interesting you can cut them back. Basically, with a few exceptions for semi-woody plants like Russian sage or St. John’s wort, non-evergreen perennials can be chopped down in fall but don’t need to be. If I am cleaning out a bed in fall, I do it then so I don’t have to go back to that bed again. Carolyn

  3. I have been using mulched leaves as my garden mulch for years so I’m so glad to hear you are spreading the ‘leaf mulch’ word around Carolyn. We have 3 1/2 acres of leaves so I have our lawn service collect them off the lawn and out of certain beds and mound them into a leaf hill for my use. Once the leaves are piled up, I cover them with 3 ft. sections of plastic fence so they don’t blow around but can still be rained/snowed upon I do have a Troy-bilt leaf shredder/vacuum that shreds the leaves for my beds. It can be pretty labor intensive but I call my outdoor work “the best gym in the world” for me. My garden beds have never been better. Mother Nature knows best!! Another tip….you can rake piles of leaves on your lawn and use your mower to shred them right on your lawn. Any shredded leaves left on the lawn will feed your lawn naturally.

    Also, if you have lots of trees like we do, collect the fallen branches and make brush piles. The winter birds and assorted critters will appreciate a nice winter shelter!

    • Hi Cathy. Great to have another plug for retaining and using leaves. I guess this process could be labor-intensive, but we use the shred them on the drive or lawn with the lawn mower and return them to the beds method, and it works for us. Any leftovers are stockpiled for spring. Love your brush pile idea—our birds need all the help they can get. People are always asking me what gym I go to and I just laugh. Carolyn

  4. Love that garden bench photo! Your hosta hill is beautiful in spring and fall… I’m so glad we get to see different versions of the garden each season. We don’t always get around to actually grinding up our leaves around here but I also use leaves as mulch. Even with our large, mature oak neighborhood I find myself picking up truckloads of them to add to the beds.

    • Thanks, Eliza. My father would have loved you. I didn’t admit it in the post, but we drive around in fall picking up pine needles that people put out for collection. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Carolyn

  5. Hi Carolyn,

    Love your blog….

    My woodland garden (2+ acres) yields copious shredded leaves; not only providing ample mulch, but the sine qua non of compost.

    • Thanks Rick. It sounds like you must have great soil too. I also compost by throwing leaves, kitchen scraps, and garden refuse in an old stone manure pit next to our carriage house. My husband turns it several times a year, and we get beautiful compost. The only equipment you really need for composting is a pile and a pitchfork! Carolyn

  6. Judith Spruance Says:

    Hi Carolyn, thanks for your blog! I have been using leaves, ground up, to mulch with for several years just because it seemed to make sense. My husband grinds them up in his new expensive machine, which will also suck them out of beds. This actually saves us quite a bit of money because we need help with all the leaves if we do not grind them up. It has certainly made the soil in my beds healthier and the plants are much more resistant to drought. We just had the lawn plugged – I now think I should spread some of those ground up leaves around to fill in the holes – is that a good idea? Loved your information on how you use leaves in different areas, very helpful.
    How about some tips on getting rid of lesser celandine, an evil invasive little weed with pretty yellow flowers in the spring?

    • Hi Judith. Great to hear about another grinder. According to a video on the Garden Lady blog, a recent Michigan State University study has shown that grinding up to 18″ of leaves on your lawn and leaving them there is beneficial to your lawn. If there are leaves still on your lawn, mow them and leave them. If not, it would be good for the lawn to spread some of your ground leaves on it. As to the lesser celandine, I garden completely organically, and I fight this plant by digging it up before it disappears in spring. Although time-consuming, it works. Unfortunately, there isn’t always an easy answer. Carolyn

  7. Great suggestion about the leaves. I’ve mulched leaves for quite awhile, but I never thought to put them BACK in my garden – now I will!!!! Do you have any problem putting mulched oak leaves in your garden due to their slow break down and higher acidity level? Thanks for the tip! Nancy

    • Hi Nancy. I am glad you are joining the ground leaves for mulch movement. I have never had any problem with oak leaves for mulch. I leave white pine needles in my beds for mulch too without a problem. I really think the acidity thing is overrated. Carolyn

  8. Gayle Pryor Says:

    I don’t like to rake – so I just pretend I’m mowing the lawn when the leaves have all dropped – if I need to pile it – I just mow in tighter and tighter circles with the shoot pointing to the center

  9. Carolyn, when you say you can mulch up to 18″ of leaves and leave them on your lawn – can you do a lot of leaves at once or do you need to do it every few days so you never have a lot of ground leaves on at the same time? We live in the woods and are swimming in oak leaves. My husband and sons have been raking or blowing everything onto the driveway, grinding it up, and returning the ground leaves to beds – but there are always way too many for the beds. It never occurred to me to leave them on the grass, I thought it would kill it.

    • Hi Sarah. I am so glad you are part of the ground leaves for mulch movement. The Scotts video indicates that you can safely grind up to 18″ of leaves and leave them on your lawn if you grind them to dime-size pieces (I am not sure we ever get them that small). We grind up the leaves as we mow the lawn so we are never grinding as much as 18″ at a time. Then we do one final grind-mow when all the leaves finally come down in late fall. I also stockpile ground leaves to use as mulch in the spring. I feel very secure right now because we are done fall clean-up, and I have a big pile of ground leaves and a big pile of pine needles in reserve. Carolyn

  10. Thanks for the “chopped leaves on the lawn, a good thing” comment and video. I’ll let my son know he can just “mow” the leaves. What a time savings and good natural feeding for the lawn.

  11. Hi Carolyn,
    I love your fall postings-I feel the lack of such pretty foliage colours in the tropics. Oh and I agree with you about the benefit of mulching. I can see the difference in my plants…

    • Thanks Rosie. I think you have a lot of other things in New Zealand to make up for your lack of fall foliage. I have never been there but my son fell in love with your country last January. I really like your blog and I picked your post though not the one I wanted which was on New Zealand gardens. Not sure how to pick posts besides the latest. Carolyn

  12. Dear Carolyn,
    I guess you are not the only one who has mistaken me for a New Zealander. Haha… I am from Malaysia, and I write about gardens I visit on my holidays. This series was on my holiday in October. The next series will be about my holiday in Italy and France where I visited the gardens there in May this year. Oh dear, I’d better get back to featuring my own garden before I confuse my new friends 🙂
    Thanks so much for picking my posts.

    • Well you had me fooled. I think I looked in the about section, and it didn’t mention Malaysia so I assumed New Zealand from the post. I will look forward to following your blog and learning more about your country and your garden. Carolyn

  13. Oh, Carolyn, Your Hosta Hill in spring photo and the trees below it take my breath away! Stunningly beautiful! Terrific lessons in leaf clean up and later mulch. How lucky to have such a free laborer! I hope you have a lovely Thanksgiving. I am so glad to have found your amazing blog.

  14. One of my memories of your Father’s leaf gathering: one year he collcted bags of oak leaves (so good for our Rhodos etc.) and stashed the pile of bags for later grinding. That year the grinding didn’t take place. Over the year the bags broke down and nature took over. Sometime elapsed and one day we noticed we had trees, lots of them bursting out of their bagged cocoons. We now have oak trees, where we had mostly maples and ash before. Yet another benefit of leaf harvesting. Cindy

  15. Marjorie Roth Says:

    Carolyn–Do you have any spring-blooming camelias, & do they actually bloom? I went on a tour of Charles Cresson’s property several years ago & saw his gorgeous fall-blooming camelias. But when it came to planting a camelia in my Center City yard, I opted for a red-flowered spring- blooming plant so that it would be in bloom when I would be using my yard. What a disappointment. The plant itself does wonderfully but every year, all the flower buds freeze & drop off. I have tried spraying the plant, but that doesn’t protect the buds. Fortunately it redeems itself by being a beautiful plant without flowers, but I should think that a fall-blooming camelia would always be a better choice, flower-wise, in this area.

    There is a camelia planted in front of a rowhouse in Society Hill which is pruned (limbed up) to look like a small tree & has a purple clematis planted next to it which makes its way through the camelia to provide a sort-of second flowering during the summer–a lovely effect.

    • Hi Marjorie, I do have a spring-blooming camellia, and it does bloom. It is an Ackerman hybrid called ‘April Blush’. It is planted in a sheltered spot in a sunken courtyard type area. I have been wondering how it will do with this unusually cold weather. I am going to write an article about editing your garden, and I would suggest removing your non-blooming camellia and planting one that blooms especially in your smaller city garden. The camellia-clematis combination in Society Hill sounds lovely. I may offer a seminar at Charles Cresson’s on winter-blooming plants this February. Carolyn

  16. Melinda Duplessis Says:

    Hi Carolyn, I would like to hear your thoughts on composting leaves infested with wooly aphids. I have two trees (beech and little leaf linden) that have heavy aphid infestations every year. Would you send those leaves away or compost them? I am worried about aphid eggs or aphids wintering over. Thanks, Melinda

    • Melinda, That is something that I would check out with my county extension service, in PA, the Penn State Cooperative Extension office for my area. My gut reaction is that you would want to get rid of the leaves if the aphids winter over in them but I am not sure about the life cycle. Carolyn

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