September 3, 2012

Time for end of summer garden cleanup


---- — We’re coming close to the end of another challenging summer for flower and vegetable gardens. 

Last year, it was the wet spring and fall; this time, it’s the relentless hot and dry weather. Plants that received plenty of extra water have done pretty well, but in many situations, water has been scant to none. I’ve been dragging hoses around our yard all summer, doling out water where it’s needed most. 

Now it’s time to focus on the plants that are still doing well and cut back or completely remove those that are done for the year. Even though you’ll have fewer plants left in your garden, those that remain will be the attraction for the fall season. I’ll start with pointers for cleaning up your flower gardens, then move on to the vegetable garden.


The hot, dry weather this summer created ideal conditions for spider mites and leafhoppers. My phlox and fall blooming helianthus have been devoured by these tiny menaces. I got a so-so flower show out of my phlox, but my helianthus, which do most of their blooming in September, are a lost cause this year. Both are perennials, so I’m just going to cut these bedraggled plants right to the ground and hope for better conditions next year. My bee balm is alive but parched from the lack of rain, so that’s getting cut down as well.

Go ahead and cut any of your perennials that aren’t good right to the ground any time now. They’ll be back next year. By removing the above-ground parts of these brown, straggling plants, my remaining plants will look much better. I cut my baptisia completely to the ground in mid-July, and it’s now a beautiful mound of lush, green foliage. My sedum “Autumn Joy” is just beginning to open its bronze flower heads, and I even have a few delphinium pushing up flower stalks for a second time.


Next, completely pull out any crops that are done for the year in the vegetable garden. This can include green beans, cucumbers, summer squash, potatoes and perhaps lettuce and spinach that has gone to flower. Powdery mildew and bacterial wilt are two common problems for cucumbers, melons and squash, so once your plants succumb, it’s best to remove them from your garden. 

Avoid adding any infested or diseased plants to your regular compost pile. Either make a separate bin away from the others for this or haul the materials to the back of your property, if you have the room, to let them decompose.

Once you have the spent materials out of your gardens, you can scatter oats over the bare areas for a quick cover crop that will die with the first heavy frost. Another option is to cover the bare soil with a natural mulch, such as grass clippings or chopped fallen tree leaves, to discourage weeds and add organic matter to your soil.

The gardening season isn’t over; it’s just past its peak. By doing a little clearing out now, your remaining plants will be better able to put on a nice show for the fall.

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to