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How to do a fall garden cleanup

September is the time to do a fall garden cleanup.
This cantaloupe is trying to grow in September. Even though the plant is healthy, I’ll need to take it out. Photo by Jason Margolis.

The beginning of fall can often feel like a “second spring” in the garden. The other day, I discovered that our cantaloupes – a mostly failed experiment that yielded one perfect but tiny melon – had started to set fruit again. Crocuses are poking their heads out of the ground. Bees are coming out to explore during the breaks between rainy spells. Our tomatoes and kale are still producing more than we can keep up with. It’s that sweet spot in the year when there’s just the right combination of rain and warmth to keep most things happy, when both spring and fall crops are well-established and productive. This is harvest season, a celebratory time of apples, pumpkins, late corn and fresh basil.

Still, there’s a chill in the air. Days are growing shorter. Here in Vancouver, we’ve already had one major storm and a few blustery days. More foul weather is on its way.

Now is the time to get started with fall cleanup tasks. A tidy, well-maintained garden is more likely to survive extreme weather and disease than a messy or overcrowded one. Plus, by clearing space, we’ll be able to make room for the last of the season’s plantings, like garlic and broad beans.

September is the time to do a fall garden cleanup.

Blossom end rot is caused by calcium deficiency. Once it takes over, it’s time to remove your plants and add compost to the soil. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

Doing a “big harvest”
Every spring, I make the same mistake: I pack way too many kale plants into our four-foot by eight-foot beds. I keep forgetting that the tiny seedlings will eventually turn into a forest. Unfortunately, as fall approaches, this overcrowding can result in pests and diseases. Last year I had to throw out much of our kale in October when we got hit with powdery mildew, and the rest of it in November when a sudden hard frost petrified the leaves. I could have prevented both of those problems with better spacing and a more aggressive harvest.

I recently harvested about two thirds of the leaves from our spring kale in order to ensure that there was adequate air-flow between plants. We made a ton of kale chips and froze the rest. I’m also ramping up our harvest of tomatoes, pepper and basil. We’re taking tomatoes off the vine as soon as they show the slightest hint of colour. They will ripen happily in bowls on our countertop. Our basil is getting turned into freezer-friendly pesto.

Retiring plants
I’m charmed by the fact that our cantaloupes are setting fruit again, but I’ll still need to put the plants in the compost heap. There’s no way that the fruit is going to mature, and the vines are competing with our summer-planted kale. I’ll also be removing our zucchini and tomato plants as soon as they stop producing. Already, our zucchinis are showing some blossom-end rot and our tomatoes are getting the first signs of late blight.

Knowing when to remove plants can be one of the most challenging parts of gardening. It’s also one of the most important things to master. Compost anything that has stopped producing or is showing signs of disease. By removing plants, we can clear space for the next crop and maximize yields.

Removing irrigation lines and fixing structures
With this year’s watering restrictions, we didn’t get much of an opportunity to use our new soaker hose irrigation system. In any case, I’ll pull out the lines soon and store them in our shed until spring. They don’t need to be in the garden during winter and could get damaged by frost. Now is also the time to repair any low tunnel hoops that might be broken and move container gardens to a protected spot.

Adding mulch and compost
Although spring is the most important time to add compost, many gardens can benefit from a fall boost. By this time of year, soil is tired and depleted from months of production. Before planting our garlic and broad beans in October, I’ll gently scratch an inch or two of finished compost into the soil. After sowing, I’ll top everything with a layer of mulch to protect our plants’ roots and prevent nutrients from washing away. Compost and mulch can also be layered around existing plants to help keep things going during winter. If you don’t produce your own compost, it can be purchased from most garden supply stores.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. She blogs about urban food gardening at

September is the time to do a fall garden cleanup.

I planted this kale too closely, but a big harvest will help to keep it healthy. Photo by Jason Margolis.

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