Pest-free gardens begin with fall cleanup

Using integrated pest management in your garden now will decrease your chances of insect pests and diseases next year.

Cut back perennials like peonies all the way to the ground to remove diseased leaves and stems. Compost plant material away from the garden. Photo: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.
Cut back perennials like peonies all the way to the ground to remove diseased leaves and stems. Compost plant material away from the garden. Photo: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.

You may have read books that provide romantic ideas about “putting the garden to bed creatively” by leaving seed heads and foliage for birds and winter interest. While this is inspiring and romantic, if your garden was plagued with “pests and pestilence” this past summer, you’ll want to try a new strategy. Utilizing integrated pest management (IPM) practices now, such as cutting back and thoroughly removing foliage and stems of plants and infected foliage in the garden, will give you a leg up on insect pest and disease invasion next year. Using IPM to manage garden problems is smart because it incorporates a variety of methods that are economical and effective to keep plants healthy and achieve a bountiful harvest.

IPM in the garden

Some insect pests lay eggs on the underside of leaves, which will hatch like clockwork next spring if left alone. Michigan State University Extension suggests cutting perennial foliage and composting the clippings in a pile that is quite a few yards away from the garden. If you can part with the beautiful (or not) fall color of your perennials to get this job done before frost, it is likely that pests like slugs can be “caught in the act.” On cool mornings, slugs hide deep in the petioles of plants such as Hosta and daylily. Cutting stems back all the way to the ground, leaving no stubble, will help immensely.

This thorough garden cleanup will also allow sunlight and air to dry out the surface of the soil, helping to suppress pathogens that thrive in piled up leaf litter. I find evidence of varmints like moles, voles and chipmunks when I am cutting back in the fall. Removing the perennial canopy will also allow nature’s predators, such as hawks and snakes, a much better chance of keeping them at bay.

Many gardeners experienced fungal leaf and stem spots, mildew and rots in a wide variety of perennials. July’s brutal humidity coupled with warm nights can be very conducive to the development of many types of disorders. Even plants that generally remain disease-free in my garden like Peony had a variety of spots. Judicious removal of diseased tissue now will help get your plant off to a disease-free start next spring and reduced the need for pesticides in the garden next year.

Weeds are also masters at hiding among the foliage. It never ceases to amaze me when I’m cutting back some phlox to find a huge mature ragweed plant or cottonwood seedling. “How did I miss that?” I ask myself. Take time to remove small weed seedlings, especially winter annuals such as chick weed. An innocent little seedling now will equate to a green carpet of problems next spring before your muscles even wake up!

Like annual weeds that are much easier to root out once the leafy debris is removed, perennial weeds are also much easier to control. Systemic herbicides like Glyphosate can be used minimally when these weeds are exposed, with no threat of misapplication to your garden favorites. You will find the systemic products work very slowly in colder weather, but are still effective. Try to apply on a bright, sunny day. If you root out perennial weeds now, you will be thanking me next spring.

As I get older, I find much more practicality in my gardening. The “winter garden” folks might find issue with this garden philosophy, but as my back groans and my joints complain, I have no problem chopping it all down and saying, “See ya later!” 

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