Holly Thornton is a plant diagnostician for the University of Georgia and the homeowner integrated pest management specialist. She is located in Athens on the main campus.

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Fall Cleanup Tips
by Holly Thornton       #Fall

Photo by ©iStockphoto.com/duaneellison

The worst-case scenario — weeds everywhere! If you’ve neglected to clean up your garden in a timely manner, this may be what you are facing. Don’t worry! Although weeds can be very persistent, this is a manageable task.
Photo by Holly Thornton

One of the most daunting garden tasks is fall cleanup. Most gardeners have spent the majority of the spring and summer planting, watering, fertilizing, weeding and, of course, bragging on their gardens to their friends, neighbors and family. When fall arrives, it’s time to enjoy some R & R… or so you thought!  

Fall is actually an important time to complete various housekeeping tasks — whether it be in a vegetable garden, a perennial bed or an annual bed — which in turn will help prevent those pesky disease problems from plaguing your garden the following spring.  

In terms of plant disease management, the home gardener has limited options when it comes to chemical pesticides to combat diseases. In addition, many gardeners (myself included) do not necessarily want to spray pesticides. Chemical use is rarely warranted in home gardens if one weighs in factors such as cost and time (i.e., most fungicides are not cheap and must be applied repeatedly). Luckily, there are cultural practices that can prevent diseases from lingering in those spent beds in anticipation of the following growing season.  

Your beds can be ready for next spring in five simple steps. 

Get Rid of the Weeds

Remove any weeds from in and around the plant beds. Weeds harbor many plant disease organisms, including viruses, fungi and bacteria. Weeds also steal nutrients and water from garden beds, depriving your plants of essentials required for growth.  

It is very important to identify the weeds you are removing so you know what you are dealing with. Some weeds produce large rhizomes and tap roots in the soil, so if you cut weeds only at the surface and allow the belowground structures to remain in the soil, they can produce hundreds of additional sprouts. Never forget that weeds are very resilient, and keep in mind that it is easiest to remove weeds when the soil is moist.  

Additionally, mulching around the outside of the beds will also help suppress weed growth during the fall and winter months. Compost, shredded leaves, bark or newspaper all serve as excellent mulches.

Weed whacking on the outside of the raised garden bed is a great starting point. This may have to be done several times before spring arrives. Mulching around the beds can also help suppress weed activity and growth. Photo by Holly Thornton

Begin by hoeing and raking some of the taller weeds. Roots can be dug with several tools (trowel, weeder, hoe, etc.), depending on your personal preference. Garden diggers can help turn the soil and also uproot some of the relentless weeds. Photo by Holly Thornton

Out With the Old

Dead, old and/or diseased plant material should be removed from the garden bed, along with any other materials such as labels. Dirt on the label can harbor plant pathogens, similar to soil in the ground. Comparable to weeds, many diseases reside in old plant material and on dirty garden tools. These materials serve as sites where many diseases overwinter and survive until spring. Thus, remove harvested vegetable plants, making sure to remove the entire plant — roots included. 

For perennial beds, prune dead limbs or dieback on any of the plants and problematic parts of the plants such as cankers or areas with mechanical damage. Between pruning cuts of diseased material, spray a 70/30 bleach and water solution on pruning tools to prevent the spread of disease organisms. Also, discard pruned material away from the planting site.  

Now is also a great time to cut back herbaceous perennials close to the soil. Examples of these plants include hollyhock, butterfly weed, hosta, and black-eyed Susan. 

Also, make sure to rinse and remove any dry, clotted dirt and plant material from cages, trellises, drip hoses or irrigation systems before storing them for the winter. 

Till Depth Do Us Part

After all areas of the garden are cleaned up, it is time to till the remaining soil under to a depth of at least 6 inches. This task can be done with a gasoline-powered tiller or a garden digger. Garden diggers can keep soil loose up to 15 inches deep, and they are fairly easy to use. Turning soil under helps suffocate and bury pesky diseases such as the fungal root rots caused by Pythium, Phytophthora, Sclerotium and Rhizoctonia. Most fungal root rots can survive many years in the soil due to the formation of resistant structures that can withstand the heat of the summer in the South as well as cold soil temperatures during the winter. 

Incorporate organic matter for rich, healthy soil.
Photo by Holly Thornton

Bag discarded plant materials and place it in the trash or, if permitted, burn the materials in a burn barrel. Photo by Holly Thornton

Organic Input

After the soil has been turned, add 3 to 4 inches of organic matter, such as shredded leaves or well-composted manure, to the soil and rake evenly, incorporating this material into the existing soil. This method will provide a nice medium for your plants the following year. Note: There are many “tricks of the trade” suggesting what to add in the form of organic matter, but stick with what works best for your particular garden or bed. 

Controlled Burn

Now that your beds are ready to lay dormant until the spring, discard all the accumulated spent plant material. Bag these materials and have your trash service collect it. Materials can also be incinerated in a burn barrel if permitted in your particular area. In terms of composting the remaining materials, I would use caution and discard most of it as trash. Although composting does reach temperatures that will kill most insects and disease organisms (120ºF if done properly), many of the persistent root rots and other fungi are capable of surviving extreme environmental conditions and may still be present when you use the compost the following spring. 

Continuing Care

The results of your fall cleanup will be seen in spring when plants and flowers begin to flourish.
Photo by Holly Thornton

Keep in mind that most plant diseases occur because we give them the opportunity to infect, weaken and sometimes kill our beloved plants. If we maintain healthy, vibrant plants by providing adequate growing conditions such as fertilization, water and care, we can avoid some of the more common diseases that can and do occur in our gardens and landscapes. Lastly, don’t forget that it is rare to find a disease-free yard, no matter what precautions you take! We have to reprogram our minds to tolerate some damage from disease organisms. 

Good luck!

From State-by-State Gardening September 2007. Photos by Holly Thornton and ©iStockphoto.com/duaneellison.


Posted: 10/17/12   RSS | Print


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