When the fall season arrives many homeowners hang up their gardening gloves for the year and don’t bother preparing their landscapes for winter. This is a mistake!

Fall is one of the most pleasant times of the year to be out in your yard basking in the cool, bright sunshine and the slower pace of life. (And as a bonus: no mosquitoes!!!) If you take some time in fall to prepare your yard for winter, you’ll reap the rewards the next spring.

Don’t quit the garden just yet — here are the tasks you should add to your fall yard cleanup checklist this year.

garden cleanup

How to Prepare Your yard for Winter

Clean out plant debris, especially in the vegetable garden.

Because some pests and diseases overwinter on plant debris, it’s important to clear out dead vegetable plants. You can wait until after the first frost to start gathering up the vegetable and flower plants like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and zinnias.

If some of your plants succumbed to disease this year you should be careful of how you dispose of them. For example, raspberries often suffer from cane borer. Since they can overwinter in the raspberry patch, it’s best to put all of the old canes into your trash bin instead of composting them.

All other non-diseased or non-pest ridden plants can be placed in your home compost area, put out for your town’s leaf collection, or taken to a yard waste composting site.

But, don’t clean up everything.

As a homeowner you’ve probably discovered many interesting and unique insects, birds, and critters living in and around your yard throughout the year. But, don’t think with the arrival of winter all of that wildlife just disappears. No way!

Native bees and other insects like moths and butterflies might be overwintering in your garden. Migrating birds could stop over at your house looking for berries and seeds to fuel them on their long trip to their winter homes.

And you likely have some birds that will stay and make your yard their winter residence. They’ll need seeds and berries to feed upon to keep them alive during the cold months. So, although task #1 is to clean up vegetable debris, task #2 is to leave your ornamental plants standing for the winter to provide food, cover, and protection for all of the insects and animals that co-exist with your garden.

This Cornell University website has a pledge you can take, cheekily called “The Lazy Gardener Pledge“, to leave some parts of your yard messy over the winter. They also break down the top seven things you can do to protect, shelter, and feed the life in your garden. Read more about it here.

fall leave in yard for cleanup

Keep leaves on your property.

Fallen leaves have several purposes in your yard. They break down and feed nutrients to the trees, shrubs, and grass and they also add an immense amount of habitat for overwintering pollinators. Ideally, you would leave all fallen leaves in place throughout the winter and not rake them up until the spring.

If you’re concerned that keeping leaves in place will damage your lawn, one option is to rake them off the grass and into the more wild areas of your yard, around trees and onto garden beds. This will create a mulch layer and eventually the leaves will break down and add organic matter to your soil. This will also keep the insect habitat intact since you’re simply moving the leaves instead of getting rid of them.

Another option is to mow over the leaves several times with a mulching lawnmower, which will retain the nutrients the leaves offer your landscape. But, this will also disturb and possibly destroy any of the insects using the leaves as habitat.


As you go about your fall yard cleanup checklist, make sure you’re not leaving bare soil behind, especially in the vegetable and flower gardens. In winter this is especially important because the winter cold and winds can be tough on garden soil by drying out and even blowing away your topsoil. And in the spring the weeds start growing especially early on bare soil.

After you complete task of cleaning up spent plants, it’s important to lay down a thick layer of mulch to protect the soil over the winter and keep your garden neat and tidy until you can get to it next spring. Straw, leaves, or hay are best for vegetable garden beds, and woodchips are great for perennial flowers, trees, and shrubs. Read more about how to put mulch around a tree.

Plant trees and shrubs.

If you didn’t have time to purchase and plant trees in the spring, you have a second chance at the end of the season. And in fact, there are many benefits to planting trees in fall over the spring and summer seasons. You’ll set your new trees up for less stress, better growth, and more success in the long term. Read more about the advantages of planting trees in fall.

Trim dead branches.

If you noticed diseased or dead branches throughout the season, fall is a great time to get them taken care of. If it’s a simple job you might be able to handle it yourself. But, we always recommend calling a certified arborist for any tree work on your property. If you value your trees it’s always worth it to have a professional help care for them.

winter tree branches needing pruning

Schedule winter tree work.

Some people misguidedly believe that tree pruning has the potential to harm trees during the winter. But, in reality, winter is when trees are dormant, so it can be one of the best times of the year to scheduling pruning.

Fatal tree diseases can easily be spread if trees and shrubs are pruned at the wrong time of the year. If you live in the eastern or central part of the US and have oak or elm trees on your property it’s important to know that these trees should only be pruned in the winter months when trees are dormant and insect activity is low to non-existent. Oak trees are susceptible to Oak Wilt and elms trees to Dutch Elm disease.

If you live in the Madison, WI area you’re in luck because Eco Tree Company’s certified arborists offer tree pruning in addition to other tree care services. With a passion for arboriculture, our professionals use research-based methods to keep your plants healthy. To get a quote, call us at (608) 609-8777 or contact us online.

Now that you’ve added these seven important tasks to your fall yard cleanup checklist, the only thing left to do is look at the weather, pick out a nice, warm fall day in the coming weeks, and treat yourself to a day outside in the fresh air preparing your landscape for winter.

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