Close this search box.

Fall Landscaping Tips and Tricks with Jess Atkins

Jess Atkins fall leaves
Photo courtesy of Jess Atkins

We welcome back Jess Atkins, Princeton-area homeowner and self-taught gardener who recently shared with us her fall and winter landscaping tips and tricks for her yard.

What are some easy fall clean-up practices you recommend?

First, look for diseased plants that need to be cut away. It’s important to use a second pair of gloves so that you don’t spread it to your healthy plants. Look for plants with powdery mildew, mold, etc. and remove those leaves. Eliminating those leaves will keep your new growth healthy next season. Make sure to landfill all your diseased plant material, don’t add them to your home compost pile as it could risk the spread of the diseases.

milkweed with mold
Milkweed plant with mold

If your plants still have flowers on them, leave them! There’s no need to perfectly clean up the garden right now. There are still active bees and other pollinators that can enjoy the pollen and nectar. It’s been warm, so my marigolds, snapdragons, roses and salvia are still blooming. When they fade and dry up, it will finally be time to trim your plants – with a few exceptions. Leave coneflowers, sunflowers, and other plants with seeds and berries for birds. Seedheads make excellent winter interest in the garden, along with dry hydrangeas. 

But something to consider is that you may want to cut off the seed pods of vigorous spreaders like common milkweed if you don’t want additional plants. You can also save a few seeds for the future or give them to your friends and neighbors. When cleaning up other perennials, ensure you cut the stalks rather than pulling them – you could accidentally pull out the roots or basal growth (leaves, shoots, and stems that start growing from the very base of the plant). You can also leave about 6” of the hollow stems over winter so insects like native bees can overwinter in them.

Why is it important to understand your plants and trees during fall clean-up?

In some cases, you should remove some of the leaves from your yard. For example, my neighbor’s Black Walnut tree produces leaves and stems containing juglone, a natural defense compound that can harm other plants. If exposed to juglone, many plants can show signs of root damage, wilting, yellow leaves, or stunted growth, and especially susceptible plants like tomatoes may even die. Juglone is the tree’s way of gaining a competitive advantage and it’s found in the leaves, stems, and roots. So, when doing fall leaf care, you wouldn’t want to use those leaves as mulch because they could damage some of your plants. I usually use the mower bag attachment to pick up and bag the leaves from my front yard because of this. Also, when planning my garden, I needed to find plants resistant to juglone to plant within the dripline of the tree, such as American Holly. It’s easy to deal with once you know how!

How do you manage your leaves?

First, I use my rake and an electric leaf blower to get the leaves onto the lawn; this way, I can easily mow any leftover leaves at the end. Next, I use my electric leaf mulcher to vacuum the leaves and mulch them directly into a paper leaf bag. I then pour the cut-up leaves back into the flowerbeds to use as mulch. 

In my experience, the leaf mulch will begin to break down and start to look like soil by next year. For a small yard like mine, this leaf mulching method is an excellent way to make room for a huge amount of leaves. The leaves insulate my new plantings over the winter, and they provide nutrients to enhance the soil. So far, I’ve only put out two collection bags of leaves for the fall!

If you can’t mulch your leaves, keep them in your yard by piling them in the back of your furthest flower bed. That will prevent them from blowing onto the sidewalk and smothering your grass. If you leave whole leaves over the winter, they won’t decompose as quickly but will benefit wildlife and your plants. I recommend leaving a pile of whole leaves and waiting until spring for the last leaf collection in May, so insects have a safe place to stay all winter. This year, I’m leaving a pile of whole leaves behind my shed. 

Leaves also provide a home for solitary bees, caterpillars, salamanders, and other beneficial creatures. On that note, avoid using mulched leaves against your house foundation. In my experience, it leads to crickets finding their way into the basement. Just leaving a small buffer zone should do the trick. 

Whatever leaves are left I mow into the grass, which acts as a bit of bonus fertilizer. Some people are nervous to do this, but I’ve had great results from mulching leaves into the grass a few times each fall. Sometimes I mow over them twice if there’s a thick leaf layer, but it’s a very easy way to clean up leaves. The goal is to get them to look kind of like confetti. If I had fewer leaves or a bigger lawn, mowing is all I would have to do. Alas, there are too many leaves, so some need to be placed back in the flowerbed as mulch!

In the spring, the cut-up leaves in the flowerbeds have usually broken down significantly. I rake the remaining leaves to spread them out or put more bark mulch on top as needed. 

Why is leaf care important?

Keeping leaves in your yard this way prevents unnecessary emissions, and reduces the need for trucks driving around to pick up leaves. Leaf piles in the street block the road and clog the storm drains – and Princeton has stormwater challenges. Keeping leaves is great for overwintering insects, including butterfly caterpillars. The more caterpillars are around, the more birds will be attracted to your yard. Plus it’s a good budget gardening tip – mulched leaves are free mulch for my garden!

mulched leaves 2
Use mulched leaves in your garden beds. Photo courtesy of Jess Atkins.

How do you prep your garden for Winter and Spring? 

I start by bringing potted plants indoors and insulating outdoor plants – both potted and in the ground – by covering them with leaves and burlap (a tip I learned from fellow Princeton gardener @cape_cottage_garden). I make notes of annuals and vegetables that did well in the garden – this way if I want to grow them again in the future, I know which to buy. Then I start planning for next year and buy bulbs and seeds for winter sowing. I also look for discount perennials (there are lots of end-of-season sales) which are great for low budget gardening. I recently scored three muhly grass plants and a tick seed plant for $18!

How do you select your plants for the spring?

I’ve been looking specifically at pollinator plants, using lists of keystone plants for New Jersey from the National Wildlife Federation. Pollinators do best when both host plants and plants that provide nectar and pollen are present. I’m researching what plant pairings will work well for my yard:

  • Host plants that feed the young caterpillars of many butterflies and moths.
  • Plants that feed specialist bees who only eat pollen from specific plants (for example squash bees). Keystone plants for native bees feed both specialist and generalist bees.

I recommend that if you’re looking to buy a tree, shrub or perennial to use this list of beneficial plants! There are some really gorgeous choices and some have excellent fall colors, like sugar maple and serviceberry. 

Let us know if you try any of these tips at home or share them with your landscaper to implement. Leaf management can vary from yard to yard and we encourage implementing the sustainable landscaping solutions that work best for you! If you missed our first interview with Jess, check it out: Sustainable Solutions for Small Yards: An Interview with Jess Atkins.