In consideration of the many beneficial insects that overwinter in fallen leaves and other plant debris, try to refrain from being heavy-handed when you clean up your garden at the end of the growing season. Alternatively, consider deferring the main cleanup until early spring, after insects have emerged.
That being said, any plant material that you do remove in fall (or in spring after insects emerge) can be recycled into fertile compost to be put back into the beds the following year — and even tricky items will become great compost when handled properly.
Plants killed by frost make for a great addition of organic matter to your compost pile. As you remove spent plants, shake the soil off the roots to keep that valuable soil in the garden beds, and salvage any remaining fruit that you can. You’ll be surprised at how much is still usable even after a frost.
Though the decomposition process slows down in winter, you should continue to make deposits to your compost pile. The pile should have a good mix of nitrogen-rich “green” waste (like the spent plants) and “brown” waste (like shredded leaves) as well as water and air.
You can aerate your compost pile by turning it, but this becomes difficult in the winter when the pile is covered in snow or it’s simply too cold to be working outdoors. A good substitute is to include sticks of various sizes in the pile. The sticks will create pockets that air and water can get to. The sticks will decompose more slowly than soft green material, so you can pull them out in the spring when you resume turning, or let them continue to break down naturally.
Though most of the spent plants can go right into your compost pile or bin, there is some garden waste that should be kept separate. Diseased leaves, stems and fruits should not be mixed with other composting inputs. The diseased plant material carries plant pathogens that can overwinter in compost and infect new plants when applied to the following year’s garden.
Home composting systems often don’t get hot enough to kill plant pathogens, so it’s best to play it safe. You could choose to throw the diseased plant material away or to burn it — or you can you do what I do, which is to “cook” it.
Cooking involves heating to extreme temperatures for several months to kill any pathogens. The goal is to get the heat up to 140° Fahrenheit or above for a prolonged period. The perfect “ovens” to accomplish this are the plastic bags that your mulch, soil or grass seeds came in.
Stuff a bag with any questionable debris and set it in a sunny spot. Within a few months, you’ll have pest-free and disease-free organic matter that is now safe for the compost pile.
For comprehensive instructions on making compost, you can get my free resource, The Complete Guide to Home Composting. It will tell you everything you need to know to create quality compost that you can add to your garden confidently.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
Episode 16: Composting Guide A to Z: The Quick and Dirty on Everything Compost
Episode 26: Using Leaves as Mulch & Compost (and Why Leaves Change Color & Shed)
Episode 75: Top Questions for Composting at Home: You Asked, Joe Lamp’l Answers
Episode 117: Compost, Compost Tea and the Soil Food Web, with Dr. Elaine Ingham
Episode 124: Using Compost the Charles Dowding Way: More Than Just a Great Soil Amendment
joegardener blog: Backyard Composting: A Simple Recipe for Making Great Compost
joegardenerTV YouTube: Why Leaves Change Color in Fall
joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Make a Compost Bin Using Free Shipping Pallets
joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Make a Garden Compost Sifter
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Seed Temperature Chart
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.
Long-stemmed compost thermometer
Corona® Tools – Video sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com
*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Park Seed, and Exmark. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.