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Easy-does-it winter cleanup tips for lawn and garden

Rake leaves off lawn to avoide a matted layer, which can give rise to fungal diseases in spring.
Rake leaves off lawn to avoide a matted layer, which can give rise to fungal diseases in spring. TNS

There’s still time for end-of-season garden cleanup.

“It’s a good idea to rake the last of the leaves off the lawn,” siad Doris Taylor, Plant Clinic manager at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. You don’t have to remove every last leaf, but a matted layer of leaves under winter snow can give rise to fungal diseases in spring.

Don’t worry about how you’ll get rid of the leaves. The best thing to do with them is to rake them around the trunks of trees, under shrubs or over perennial beds as mulch. You may want to shred them by raking them in a pile and running the lawn mower over them: “Shredded leaves don’t pack down as much as whole leaves,” Taylor said, and they won’t blow around as much.

By spring, many of the leaves will have vanished, consumed by fungi, and you can rake up and compost the rest.

In the meantime, they will insulate the soil against sudden warm spells in winter, which can lure plants to come out of their winter dormancy too soon. It’s actually better to replenish mulch once the ground has gotten frosty, because the goal of winter mulch is to keep the ground frozen and prevent frost heaving, not to keep the soil from freezing.

What if you don’t like the look of brown leaves in the garden? “Add them to the compost pile,” Taylor said.

Wait to prune trees and shrubs until after the holidays to be sure they’re dormant, she said. But you can cut back the dead foliage of perennials now. “Good housekeeping is essential,” Taylor said, and the more tidying up you do at the end of the season, the less you will have to do in spring.

Make sure to cut back any plant that had disease problems and clean up any leaves that have fallen from it. Dispose of the entire plant outside your garden, not in your compost. Bacteria or fungal spores that caused disease problems can often survive in home compost piles.

Do the same with leaves fallen from diseased trees, such as crabapple trees with apple scab.

Ornamental grasses are usually left standing for interest over the winter and cut back in February. When it comes to cutting back other perennials, it’s a matter of taste. Some gardeners cut back every brown stalk at the same time; others like the look of dried seed heads and flowers on plants such as echinacea and astilbe.

“You can always cut back the unattractive ones now and leave more interesting ones standing until they start to show wear and tear,” Taylor says.

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