Fall cleanup ain’t what it used to be—like a lot of traditional gardening activities, it has changed with the times and with new information from horticultural and environmental sciences. Rather than cleaning up every bit of debris and dead plant material, the new emphasis is on leaving things to carry on as nature intended: leaves stay on the ground and dead flowerheads and stalks stay up to gradually senesce as the winter moves in. The nice thing is that (like abandoning discredited practices like tilling and double-digging) it’s a lot less work.
But wait! What if I don’t want leaves to compact my lawn or messy old vegetation to sprawl across my paths or generally look unsightly? Well, yes, compromise is important; we’re supposed to enjoy our gardens, after all. If you have an actual lawn (as opposed to the green carpet of weeds, grass, clover, and violets many of us have), taking the fallen leaves off can be important, particularly if there are too many to break up in the last mowings of the season. But if you can, use those leaves to put under shrubs, in beds, and perhaps in a nice leaf pile that will provide you with leaf mulch in the future. (If the county takes them, you have to buy them back as Leafgro.) Leaves will provide habitat for insects to winter over, including next year’s crop of beneficial insects and bird food.
As for the fading perennials, it can be important for the health of the plant to have a lot of the old foliage intact for winter protection. And leaving those spent stalks, especially of Joe Pye weed and other hollow-stemmed plants, provides nurseries for native bees and other insects, which really prefer upright stems for nesting. And of course the seedheads allow birds to feed in the fall and winter.
But if it’s all too much, remove the most visible or most offensive stuff and either chop and drop it, or pile it on a compost or stick pile: stick piles are great for wildlife, and having hollow or pithy stems on the pile is another opportunity for insects to find and use them. An option I heard about the other day is using stalks to make little wattle-like barriers: use sturdier stalks as uprights driven into the ground, and weave the softer ones between them like wattle fencing. I haven’t tried this yet, but doing something like that as a temporary border could make a garden of spent perennials look more intentional. Lately I’ve been making paths with big logs between path and “lawn” and smaller sticks between path and bed: maybe I will add some trimmed hollow stems for the bees (yes, I still have more cup plants than a reasonable person needs).
Finally, fall is a good time to get the mulch onto areas where the weed pressure is high, and winter weeds will be sprouting shortly (if not already). Spreading your leaves or other mulch is one more opportunity to remove annoying weeds. For annual weeds whose seeds may not have dropped, removing them by cutting at ground level, if possible, is better than pulling (if a little less satisfying), as this doesn’t disturb soil structure or allow buried weed seeds to come up and sprout; it lets the dying roots add organic matter and aerate the soil as they shrivel away.
A lot of places in my yard will produce astonishing numbers of weeds if I don’t mulch adequately (as I keep proving), but in other areas, a light touch—even some bare earth—may be desirable. Ground-nesting and other native bees need some bare or minimally mulched earth for nesting. If you have an area with little weed pressure (dry shade, maybe), go lightly with the mulch for bees’ sake. If you want volunteers from your self-seeding annuals, biennials, or short-lived perennials, mulch lightly where you want them so that the seeds stand a chance. And if you have cardinal flowers and want to propagate them, remember that they like disturbed soil, so move aside the mulch and scrabble in the dirt before you lay down the spent flower spike and let it drop its seeds. A modern approach to cleanup doesn’t leave a clean slate, but it can help you sketch next year!