Cleaning Up the Garden: Spring or Fall?

A question I am frequently asked is: when is the best time to clean up my garden? Spring or fall? I’ve done some research and the answer depends on which website you visit. There are advocates for both, so it really boils down to personal preference.

My preference: leave the garden alone in the fall. I do remove broken stems and cut back any splayed plants, but anything that is still upright, I leave. When frost or snow collects on the dried grasses, spent echinacea blossoms, and the seed pods of Baptisia Australis, it’s a beautiful sight on a bright winter day.

Another reason I leave the garden alone is the beneficial insects and pollinators like ladybugs, bees and some butterflies who need overwintering sites where they can stay sheltered until spring. Leaf litter can provide a protected winter habitat for these guys. And then there are the birds who stick around Chicago: cardinals, chickadees, finches, and juncos, who can feast on seeds and berries left on your plants and shrubs.

Taking Care of Your Tree

My friends and clients have been asking me about the black spots that they see on their maple trees. The spots are caused by a fungus called—aptly—tar spot.

It can appear on all types of maples (with the exception of Japanese maples), although this is the first year that I have seen it on my parkway silver maple. Lots of the Norway maples in my neighborhood seem to get this every year.

The good news is that while this is unsightly, it affects only the leaves and doesn’t usually hurt other parts of maple trees, but leaves with tar spot spores left on the ground will spread to other maples next spring.
Best way to deal with this? Good housekeeping. Keep the area around your maples clean as a whistle. That means rake up those ugly, spotted leaves, bag ‘em and put them in the dumpster. According to the Morton Arboretum website: “Composting may not completely destroy spores because most home compost piles seldom heat up enough to kill fungal spores.”

Fall Leaves and Tips

Perhaps you’ve noticed the shriveled brown leaves on the sidewalks as you’ve walked through your neighborhood. This is not normal for autumn. Normally, the leaves begin to turn color around this time of year and they fall off.

However, the rainfall in Chicago has been below normal for August and September. This, combined with the record-breaking heat we have had in the last weeks has seriously stressed our trees, especially trees in the parkways.
So do your parkway tree (and any trees you may have on your property) a good turn and give them a nice long drink. Since most parkway soil is very compacted, a slow trickle for an hour or so at the base of the tree from your garden hose will be best. That way, the water can penetrate the soil and not just run off into the street.

Your trees will thank you!