7 Fall Gardening Mistakes That Will Cost You Money

– Posted in: Garden chores

Heading into fall, there are times when we might be feeling overworked, too frazzled, or simply not feeling like doing everything we normally do. Everyone needs to find their own balance in the garden, but you may want to take the time to avoid these common mistakes which can wind up costing you in the long run.       

There will be plenty of time to reflect once the snow starts falling

# 1 – Allowing wet leaves to pile up all over your garden with the hopes that that this will count for compost or winter protection – I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve done this. My garden is near two large Norway Maples, pretty enough trees, but so messy when they drop seeds everywhere early summer, and then finally drop their leaves long after fall leaf pickup is finished. One year I decided to stay warm and ignore the piling up mess until spring. Huge mistake, cleanup was so much worse the next spring as I mucked thru garden beds, needlessly compressing the soil on my quest to rake up leaves. To top it off, voles had run rampant, safely protected by the snow and leaf cover, digging up and eating an entire bed of my favorite hostas. Now, the majority of leaves get saved for my compost bin, and none of them are left to litter the ground like they did that fall.        

# 2 – Not knowing what to do with your marginally hardy plants – Playing around outside of your zone is fun and can help you achieve the type of garden your friends secretly envy. When growing things only borderline hardy for your zone, forgetting to protect them before it turns really cold outside means less of a chance for survival. I’m a zone 4 to 5 gardener depending on which hardiness map I’m looking at and can usually get away with growing plants that have a description of “Zone 5 with protection”. “Zone 5 with protection” means something marginally hardy for my zone, but with the proper protection, has a really good shot of survival most winters.
The gloriously cascading Japanese maple I bought several years ago is a great example of something that would have done better if I would have taken the time to protect it. After hours spent searching to find the one that would thrive in a partly sunny location, I settled on one that I thought would work. The problem was that I got too busy during the fall and forgot to protect it when the temperature dropped. I should have mulched it and surrounded the entire tree with a cage, filling it in with leaves. Unprotected, the top graft died off that winter, and all that remains is the base which continues to sucker. The leaves look cool, but it’s not what I wanted.
Tender perennials are another common example of plants grown outside of their natural zone which can sometimes be overwintered with the right kind of treatment. This year, I was the happy recipient of several geraniums (pelargoniums) from a friend. They’re hardy to zone 10, but tender in my area. Mulching would have no effect in protecting them outside during the winter, but these classic plants can be overwintered with very little effort. Carefully teasing soil from the roots, removing all dead or dying foliage, and storing them upside down in a box in my cool dry basement will keep them until I’m ready to plant out. The fantastic thing about this is that they’ll grow bigger and more impressive next year. If this all sounds like more work than you’d be interested in, then grow tenders as annuals or plant below your zone to avoid risking plant loss, and enjoy your garden in your own way.

Greg Koehler Geraniums

# 3 – Neglecting to divide perennials – No one likes the look of a gaping dead patch in the middle of their favorite perennials; many need to be revived every few years. My favorite perennial dianthus ‘Star’, the ones loved by my daughter because she imagined people being cheered by their bright colors, wound up dying out after several years of brilliance. I was lucky enough to dig up and root some still green shoots off of one, but I’m convinced that I would have been able to save the rest if I had taken the time to dig and discard the dead centers. This was when I was still fairly new to gardening and thought that perennials keep going and going, before I learned that they do better with a little more attention than what I was giving them. My yellow flowering sedum is at the point where I will need to dig and divide; it’s getting too large and developing a yucky dead center. It’s now or never, digging and replanting will allow the roots to develop before a hard freeze.       

Creeping Yellow Sedum begs for division

# 4 – Ignoring diseased foliage – For plants hit with diseases like powdery mildew, it’s important to get rid of any fallen foliage immediately, leaving nothing behind for the winter. Leaf litter is likely to contain the powdery mildew spores, allowing them to lay dormant until spring when it can again ravage your favorite plants. General garden cleanup is a lot of work but will make next year’s garden that much healthier and easier to enjoy. Just a little bit longer and my garden will be sleeping, buried under a nice layer of snow. Then I’ll take the break I’ve been working so hard for, looking back on what’s worked, what didn’t perform as expected, and browsing thru photos of my garden this past season.        

# 5 – Forgetting to shop end of the season at your favorite local nursery – Fall’s a great time for planting, and nurseries offer deep discounts to get rid of excess stock. I’m usually happy saying no to an impulse buy, but if I see something I’ve been wanting for a while, I’ll snatch it up for the right price. I was thrilled to find two toad lillies recently, a plant I’d never grown but always admired for only $3 each. Yeah me!       

Toad lilies find a new home

# 6 – Procrastinating on planting out home grown plants – Even now I’m eyeing up the last pot of heuchera seedlings I have going. The leaf form looks great, and I’m please with how well they did, but if I don’t plant them out before it gets too cold, there’s a good chance that they won’t make it through the winter. I love these little babies, and I’m not willing to take that risk.        

Heuchera seedlings ready for planting

# 7 – Not prepping your clay pots for winter – This is one of my last chores, but with sub-zero winter temperatures, it’s essential. Cleaning, drying and properly storing pots can help to eliminate any lingering disease, as well as ensure they remain intact until spring. I like brushing out as much soil as possible, and then cleansing them with hydrogen peroxide before allowing them to dry thoroughly and storing them in my unheated garage. Storing wet pots can result in hairline (or bigger) fractures as the moisture within the pot goes thru freeze and thaw cycles.     

About the author: Lisa Ueda offers home gardening tips at The Frugal Garden. Her aim is to inspire, awaken and motivate new gardeners into discovering their inner green thumbs.

About the Author

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Phil Nauta - Smiling Gardener November 12, 2010, 1:56 pm

I’m all about leaving all of my leaves in the garden over winter to protect the soil and then breakdown into organic matter the next year. I don’t have moles or voles to worry about, so I had never thought of that before, but other than that, raking the leaves into the beds in the fall is one of my most important tasks. Interesting.

Karen November 8, 2010, 11:31 am

Hi Lisa,
Thank you for the tips. I live in zone 5 in Northern Arizona. We have hard freezes and sometimes get as much as 5 ft of snow in one day. I am wondering about the wisdom of planting a 4 in 1 apple tree and almond tree that our local nursery has on sale. I read that it is fine to plant in the fall because the trees go into a dormant stage. Would the tree get a head start on spring growth for some reason? Others think I should just wait until spring and get the trees then. What do you think about this? Also, for my other young, but established apple, peach, pear, and cherry trees , do you recommend putting a cage around the trunk and filling it with leaves, such as oak leaves? Wet or dry? Mowed over or full size?

Thank you for your great site!

Lisa Ueda November 8, 2010, 8:38 pm

Hi Karen,
Couple of thoughts: If it’s a good enough deal you might want to give it a try. I usually like to finish fall planting in my area by mid october at the latest, but this year’s been so warm that I put out the last of my tulips just this past weekend, we’ve only started having frost and it should be about 4 weeks before a good solid freeze. All zones 5s aren’t created equal though. Trees and shrubs can do well if they’re allowed to start setting down roots before the ground freezes when they’ll go dormant and then start back up in the spring. Are you expecting a warm snap or is already pretty cold? Let that be your guide. I see a lot of gardeners in my area cage and fill (oak is fine) for younger trees. If they’re only marginally hardy like my Japanese Maple was, it’s probably a great idea, if they’re hardy to your zone, protecting can still protect your trees if it gets unusually cold.

I’m glad you like the article 🙂 but let me give credit to Kathy for her great site. She was kind enough to let me post this here.

Amy@Green Gardenista November 5, 2010, 11:34 am

I’d like an addendum put on mistake number one for those of use who have just tried to mow fallen leaves into composty submission in the yard rather than rake them up. Anyone else done that? I’m raising MY hand!

Lisa Ueda November 8, 2010, 8:39 pm

Lol, that’s a no no?

Daniel November 3, 2010, 11:32 pm

Hi. i’ve been doing some winter maintenance around my gardens here in Colorado, and I put leaves[ full leafs] into/on top of one of my gardens, because i’ve read it’s fine to do that, as they will naturally decompose just like in the forest.

your 1st tip says not to do that… i don’t have voles here and don’t think i’d have much of an issue cleaning up if most of them decomposed by spring or so..

so what should i do, keep it and see what happens or?

Zone 5 or 5a-b depending on map.


Lisa Ueda November 4, 2010, 6:56 pm

Hi Daniel,
I think it depends on a couple of things: 1) The kind of leaves – My neighbor’s big norway maples don’t break down, but something smaller probably would. 2) What it’s covering, some plants wouldn’t be bothered, some would, even though that might have more to do with moisture than anything and 3) How groomed you want your beds to look. One of my back beds I’m not as worried about, the front ones I like tidier. I still use leaves to help insulate some of my shrubs, but have found it works better to keep them out of most of my beds. The voles were the thing that did it for me. Shorter answer? If it’s what you do, and it works for you, then don’t change a thing, half the fun of gardening is experimenting and finding what works for you.

Nicholas Klacsanzky November 3, 2010, 9:57 pm

Wow! You really go into the subtleties of gardening (and our downfalls as gardeners). I can say I am guilty of the leaf pile-up scenario – actually I make excuses for all different things for the use of compost. Also, shopping at the end of the season is rarely done by me or by my family. I would call myself a lazy gardener. I think I will get less lazy, though, by reading this blog post of yours.

Lisa Ueda November 4, 2010, 6:59 pm

Lazy or fastidious, as long as it brings a smile to your face, then it’s a good thing in my book!

Melanie (baconseed) November 3, 2010, 9:14 pm

This list was so informative! Great post Lisa! I still have so much to do!! Thanks for the guidelines, I feel like it helped me realize the things I missed 🙂

Lisa Ueda November 3, 2010, 10:07 pm

Thanks so much Melanie, I’ve got my fingers crossed that I can finish putting my garden to bed this weekend, but as you know with kids around, you just can’t ever predict 🙂

gail November 3, 2010, 2:41 pm

Yes, I like to mulch the leaves before I add them to the beds~much easier to deal with then soggy, muddy ones in the spring gail

Lisa Ueda November 3, 2010, 7:36 pm

They’re such a great resource aren’t they? I was glad to find my son raking when I got home from work. I’m thinking this weekend might be a good finish up and mulch kind of weekend.

Jack Matthews November 3, 2010, 2:03 pm

These pics are absolutely magnificent with such cool colors of nature.
I came across your blog on internet and wondered why I haven’t visited it before. I am a hobby gardener myself and love to see my plants grow and produce nice flowers.

I am an instant follower and bookmarked the blog instantly. I hope to learn more about gardening from you and other fellows here.
Happy Gardening

commonweeder November 3, 2010, 9:07 am

A great list – and I got well into doing all these things – but I never seem to get it all done – and now it is probably too late to do anything else, except maybe finishing cleaning my pot.

Lisa Ueda November 3, 2010, 7:36 pm

Lol me either, but if I can even get half of it done I feel pretty good about it 😉

Darla November 3, 2010, 8:32 am

Interesting list here. Some of the fall cleanup of you northeners is just foreign to me. I’m in North Florida zone 8.

Lisa Ueda November 3, 2010, 7:40 pm

Too true too true, I bet you have a lot more pruning though 😉 I love the subtropics but I don’t know if I could keep up with the maintenance. Until recently my Mom lived in the Keys but could never keep up with the amount of growth in her yard. I always fantasized about what I would do with the same space.

Sar November 3, 2010, 7:37 am

This is all great advice, but here in Toronto it’s already getting into very deep frosts at nights. It’s too late to be dividing perennials at this point, no? The ground is already getting hard (not to mention it’s dark out within minutes after I get home from my commute). Anyway, thanks for the tips — I’ll bookmark for next year.

Kathy Purdy November 3, 2010, 9:27 am

Sar, you are correct–it is too late for me to be dividing perennials, and I bet it is now too late for Lisa, the author of this post, to be dividing them as well. But she sent this article to me a few weeks ago, and I sat on it for a while, and then asked her to do some editing on it, so that by the time it was published it was a little out of date. But it is still good information, as you noted.

Sar November 3, 2010, 7:01 pm

Thanks! Yes, great tips! Keep up the good work!

Lisa Ueda November 3, 2010, 7:42 pm

You got that right, even though with temperatures hovering in the 50s for the next week, it’s tempting to divide, but I can’t remember having a Thanksgiving without snow, so I think it’s a little too late.

Frances November 3, 2010, 6:08 am

Great informative post! I had better get cracking too, since several of these things on the list sound all too familiar! 🙂

Lisa Ueda November 3, 2010, 7:48 pm

I’d better finish up too. Once daylight savings time switches all of the wind goes out of my sail (ToT)

VW November 2, 2010, 11:35 pm

Such great tips! I was toying with the idea of letting everything sit through the winter, but now I’m motivated to clean up to get ready for a great spring. Thanks!

Lisa Ueda November 3, 2010, 7:49 pm

Awesome!! Fall cleanup always makes me excited for spring and some of the new things I’d like to try.