The common list of fall clean-up chores has terrorized me over the years. Right on the heels of trying to preserve the glut of late summer produce, comes the rush of attempting to collect the last of what is fresh before the first hard frost. And all the while, not only are weeds growing, but desired plants, such as corn stalks, have roots that are hardening into gargantuan cement-like masses in the soil. There has to be some engineering lesson in this… Before you know it, holidays begin to descend like an avalanche, initially under the guise of celebrating the harvest that still needs attention. Plus, the government messes with our sleep schedule and deprives us of evening daylight hours after normal working hours.
The temptation is to just give up. It will all be covered with snow soon, right? If not, maybe it will just be too cold to care. Unfortunately, when spring comes, you will likely regret not having done some clean up. When you want to be taking advantage of the hope of new spring lettuces or peas, you will be stuck pulling out rotting plant matter. It is not a pretty picture, but the overwhelming task of fall clean-up can threaten to paralyze you. Here are some ways to put it in perspective, enjoy the work, and be satisfied (click on any photo to enlarge):
1. Give up on the idea of perfection. That doesn’t mean give up on clean-up, rather it means keep plugging along as you can and congratulate yourself on every little bit of progress.
2. Prioritize tasks according to how a frozen ground will affect them. For instance, go through and pull up things by the roots, but leave them to be collected later when it wont matter if the stalks and leaves are frozen. If you need to fix fence posts or trellis stakes, do that before the ground is frozen, but save above ground repair of the fencing for a sunny winter day. If a freeze hits before you have done anything, go ahead and cut plants down close to the ground, which will make less to collect in the spring and give easier access to removing them. Sometimes the ground will thaw some in the mid winter, and they can be gotten to then.
3. Use leaves for mulch. Ideally, mow them and they will stay in place better. Either way, take advantage of both the insulation and the homemade organic mulch, as well as save yourself the unnecessary effort of bagging and hauling. There is always the option of giving them to chickens, too, which is very fast using the tarp method.
4. Take this time to make an honest evaluation of how to adjust the size of your garden. If it is too much to clean up, then it might be time to change the lay of the land. This year, I am replanting a couple of flower beds with grass and turning one garden area back into chicken yard. The promise of more manageable yard next year inspires me to find segments of time for this twist on fall clean-up.
5. Remember that every weed destroyed is one less to grow large and/or go to seed. Some perennial weeds start to grow and flower again in the cooler fall temperatures. Don’t assume all plant life is going dormant, because some definitely isn’t.
6. Keep in mind that you will warm up as you work, so the cold doesn’t have to deter you. Sometimes it can be hard to get moving, because you feel chilled sitting in the house and just want to cuddle in a corner. It is ironic that you might be warmer if you go outside and get moving!
7. Invest in cold weather clothes. Things like long underwear, insulated gloves, ear warmers, and insulated work pants can make a big difference. Even if it means only having them on until you warm up, if they get you out the door, they are worth it.
8. Don’t forget that fresh air helps to fight off winter germs. Not only that, but the deeper breathing from exerting yourself in the outdoors will open your lungs in ways that can’t be copied by going to a gym for a workout.
9. Relax while you work. I don’t mean work slowly or lethargically. I mean don’t be panicked or tense about it. Let yourself slip into the flow of it and just enjoy the time.
10. Work in smaller time segments. Don’t put yourself in the pseudo-heroic position of doing fall clean-up in one day or one weekend, unless you have a particularly small garden. If you have strategized in regards to when the ground might freeze or there may be a heavy covering of snow, there will almost always be something that you can accomplish.
11. Use the right tools. This time of year, almost all the plants are big. Use the big tools, like the sturdy spading fork and the heavy duty shovel. While I am a proponent of disturbing the garden soil as little as possible, most roots will not adequately decay by spring in my climate. If they need to be dug out, they need to be dug out.
12. Do the bigger, more physical jobs at the beginning of a work period. Not only will it warm a body up faster, but I can only man-handle so many large, deep rooted weeds in one setting. I can keep on working on less physically demanding tasks after that and still be getting important things done.
13. Intersperse more unpleasant jobs with those that you find more enjoyable. This will give you happier feelings at the moment and happier memories to help motivate you to get to work next time. In other words, don’t be your own worst boss.
14. Learn when to harness the power of spontaneity. An overall plan is good and can help keep you on track, but sometimes you notice things you hadn’t thought of or that you find would be better done sooner or that you just feel like doing.
15. Don’t fight the elements. If the wind is blowing, it is not time to gather leaves. If it’s raining, you might want to clean the shed instead of pull weeds. Sometimes diligence is actually just being stubborn and doing things the wrong way at the wrong time, giving yourself excuses to complain and avoid the chores in the future. Avoid this self-made trap.
16. Feed the birds. Maybe you are torn about disposing of those old sunflower stalks that all the wild birds are coming to. Or you have a few split cabbage or overripe cucumbers that are prime eating for our feathered friends. If you have chickens, a lot can be given to them. Another option is to set up some leftovers for the wild birds in an out of the way place or a convenient place you can see from the window. A bunch of sunflowers can be cut down, but then tied together like a harvest display. The birds will keep coming. A couple of squashed cucumbers or a pumpkin will make those seeds readily available. Why buy seeds at the store when you have leftovers in your own garden? The birds will be happy and you will feel less like you are “throwing a bunch of dead stuff away.” Just keep track of what is rotting so you don’t end up with any surprises.
17. Remind yourself about holiday eating and that it is to your advantage to keep burning calories! Put all the energy gained from those sumptuous meals and desserts to work for you in your clean-up efforts.
18. Harvest a few things while you are at it. The emphasis should be on *a few*. At some point, the main harvest time is done, but there are usually a few things that could be gathered for that evening’s meal or to set aside for a few days. Picking a handful of remaining broccoli florets or pulling a recently uncovered leek are a nice way to end a session of fall clean-up.
19. Get the kids involved with games. I am told that corn stalks make great swords, there is a point system for tossing frost damage tomatoes into the bucket, and bugs need to be examined and cataloged. It is all more fun when the dog jumps into the pile of leaves with you and everyone is laughing.
Remember, you are the boss of your garden. It is yours to enjoy and design. Your garden can be as complicated or as simple as you like, but you will probably enjoy it more if you are not always struggling under the perceived tyranny of what urgently “needs” to be done now.