Q. I am a new gardener. What should I be doing about cleaning up my garden? Is it better to do it in the fall, or can I wait until spring?
A. Just as it’s more efficient to clean up your home immediately after a party instead of waiting a few days for the stains to set, it’s easier to clean up your yard in the fall than in the spring. Plant stalks are still crispy and easily clipped before winter turns them into mush. You can spot and pull weeds that have lost their camouflage and remove dead foliage storing disease spores. Your yard will look neater all winter.
Birds, however, prefer a mess. The best reason to wait until spring is so your garden will provide more cover and food for wildlife over the winter, their toughest season. So if you don’t get around to a fall garden cleanup, just call yourself an animal lover!
Here’s what you need to do, sooner or later. Store stakes, pots, and decorative items. Cut down herbaceous plants (those that die to the ground each winter), and bag foliage that contains weeds, weed seeds, or diseased foliage. This is especially true for mildew-prone plants such as phlox, delphiniums, monardas, and herbaceous peonies. You can pull up annuals and vegetable plants and bag them, roots and all.
Fallen tree leaves can smother grass, so remove them from your lawn, as well as from driveways and walkways. You can save effort and money spent on bags by raking or blowing leaves into a corner compost pile. Use a circle of chicken wire to keep them from blowing around, or weigh them down with a shovel load of soil. Soon leaves will tamp down solidly and begin transforming rather miraculously into super nutritious weed-free mulch for your garden.
You can let pine needles and leaves remain where they fall under trees and on gardens. They will add nutrients as they decompose over the winter.
Q. Now that I can walk under my oak tree without being maimed by acorns that drop with the impact of a pitcher’s fastball, what should I do with this bumper crop? I’ve gathered buckets of nuts, and it’s still difficult to walk across the yard without stumbling. I know acorns are an important food source for bears, deer, birds, and rodents. The woods are also full of acorns, so those pesky bears that raided my bird feeders last spring might not visit my yard this fall. Do you have any suggestions?
ANNE HENDRICKSON, Townsend
A. You have bears? I just have squirrels.
Since the extinction of our native chestnut trees a century ago, oaks have become the number one food source for wildlife. I would pile your acorns someplace away from foot traffic where wildlife can find them. Though there are a lot of acorns now, some animals might be very hungry in a few months. I certainly would not bag acorns for trash collection.
This fall’s super heavy acorn production happens only about three years per decade. It’s called a “mast year.” I know you can use up only so many acorns with holiday craft projects, Kind Readers, but if you do have mature oak trees on your property, please tolerate the nuisance. Don’t cut them down, as many homeowners do in a misguided quest for neatness and the perfect lawn.
News and events
■ More than 1,000 images of botanical illustrations dating from 1620 to 1969 can now be accessed through www.masshort.org, the home page of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, owner of the country’s oldest horticultural library. The website also has information about the society’s Festival of Trees and Snow Village. The events run Nov. 27 through Dec. 13 at Elm Bank in Wellesley. Admission is $10; children under 11 are free.
■ Sunday, Nov. 22, is the last day of the historic Smith College Chrysanthemum Show at the Lyman Plant House & Conservatory, 16 College Lane, Northampton. Suggested donation: $5. For more information, go to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your city or town and your name or initials.