As winter starts to creep in, now is a good time to prep your gardens and set them up for a successful growing season next year. One of the cheapest, easiest, most natural ways of protecting gardens from the dark days ahead is to leave the leaves.

Don’t get me wrong; I do a fair share of cleanup—in non-permeable areas. I keep my porch and sidewalks clean because there’s no need for the leaves to sit for months on some concrete. But, as for the gardens and the yard, there’s no need to clean them up from the ground because they are supposed to be there.

In early winter, the leaves act as mulch and help retain moisture until the ground freezes solid. In deep winter, the leaves protect the soil from the bitter, dry winds. And in the early spring, when we get our freak snowstorms, the leaves protect pollinators who are burrowing beneath them waiting for warmer weather.

The leaves will also eventually break down and become part of the soil process, though it doesn’t quite happen in one winter. It takes more than one season for composting to occur, but as old leaves crumble, they can be worked into the soil, providing necessary organic material in the garden. Over time, the soil will get richer and the process will happen faster.

Leaves can also help lawns, even though we don’t often see leafy lawns. Remember that any soil you see is sad soil; if the ground is exposed to sun and the elements, the microscopic inhabitants have been killed or have moved on. In other words, exposed earth is bleached earth. So, leaving leaves to cover the patches in the lawn can actually help rejuvenate those dead areas—as long as you can keep the leaves in place. 

Diseased leaves are one caveat in this process. Certain plant diseases can stay in the soil and survive the winter months. I like to check my plants as the leaves turn to make sure that I might catch anything that shouldn’t go into the soil. It’s not a perfect process because it’s not possible to catch everything, nor does anyone really have the time to sort through leaves. But any catch is a win. So, it’s worth trying.

One disease that is pretty common around here—and pretty easy to spot—is powdery mildew. Powdery mildew comes from warm days and cool nights, so it’s no wonder that this problem regularly rears its head, as those temperatures pretty much sum up our early fall. It’s light gray and white, and often covers the leaves of lilacs, Virginia creeper, roses and grapes.

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Sarah McMahon

Rumor has it that spraying milk on the mildewed leaves can stave off the disease, but it probably won’t be too successful this late in the season. It’s a good idea to throw those leaves out (don’t compost) if you can catch them, rather than leaving them to fester over the winter months. 

Though you may not see the benefit after one winter, over a few seasons, you will see improvement in your soil and your plants from leaving the leaves. One of the greatest gifts you can give the garden is to let Mother Nature do the work for you—after all, she does know what she’s doing. 

October = Plan your winter look

If you are ready to clip and prune, take some time to consider your winter landscape before you start shaping bushes, shrubs and grasses. The winter months can feel long in Colorado, so it’s nice to think about the aesthetic of a “dead” garden. For example, you may want to leave tall grasses rather than cut them because they will keep their height and look beautiful in the snow. Spring-blooming shrubs should not be trimmed this time of year because you end up cutting the hardwood, which grows the blooms. Plus, shrubs maintain a nice shape all winter, so they add depth and height to the otherwise barren ground.

October = Planting bulbs

Before the soil freezes solid, you still have time to plant bulbs for spring blooms. Now is a great time to plant tulips, daffodils, grape and regular hyacinths, and crocuses. When planting bulbs, be sure to check the necessary depth for each type. Planting tulips too deep, for example, will result in squatty flowers in spring. You may also need to rig some serious anti-squirrel device. I always struggle with squirrels getting to my bulbs. You can put down netting or hard-wire cloth to help deter any critters. Or you can just plant so many bulbs that losing a few won’t matter. 

October = Planting garlic

In the spirit of planting bulbs, now is the time to plant those mini, tasty ones: garlic. It is possible to plant garlic that comes from the grocery store, but it’s not the most promising route. You’re better off buying bulbs/seeds from seed companies or local farms that might be selling them. If you have the space, then I suggest making a nice big garlic patch. Plant 50 bulbs! You will be able to plant in the same patch once you harvest the garlic next year, so you may as well benefit from a plant that grows over the winter. You’ll have to keep the squirrels out of here, too, when you first plant. Just like any other bulb, these attract the little buggers.