Gleaning the fall garden

Congratulations!  You have made it from the hot gardening season and have the produce and sunburn to prove it.  Fall is a welcome break, but there is still plenty to do in your garden.  Gleaning your fall garden is where you should start and work your way to cleaning your fall garden.  Gleaning and cleaning: this is a way to harvest the last of your produce, save seeds from your prize plants, plan your spring garden, and prepare your garden beds for winter.

Traditionally, gleaning is when the poor would be allowed to come behind the harvesters and collect any of the food that was left in the fields.  This practice ensured everyone in the community had access to food while providing them the dignity of work.  Gleaning was not a hand-out and, in Biblical times, was not an option.  It was a scriptural command which made it clear the land—and everything that came from the land—belonged to God.

TheGleaners Jean-François Millet completed in 1857
“The Gleaners” completed by Jean-François Millet in 1857

Gleaning networks are increasing in popularity.  These organizations use volunteers to glean produce that would otherwise go to waste and donate it to local food banks instead.  If you have a small, market garden, think about volunteering as a gleaner.  If you have a large farm, see if you can allow these volunteers to glean what is left in your fields.

Although gleaning has taken on a more secular meaning, harvesting, and using every last bit of produce, is a tangible way to act on the values homesteaders share.  If you value the land and self-sufficiency, gleaning is a great way to act on those values.  As homesteaders, we can act as both the gleaner and the landowner.

Before you glean the remaining produce in your garden, decide which plants were your best performers.  You can either dig them up and pot them in containers to overwinter in the garage under a grow light or collect seeds from any fruit or vegetable you find on the plant.  Seed-saving techniques are key to developing a low- to no-cost food supply and can be found on the internet.  Get started at Beginning and Ending with Seeds: Starting, Growing, and Saving Seeds.

Once you have collected the plants and seeds you want to save for next year, remove any diseased plants.  Look for insect infestation and mold.  This plant material should not be left in your garden because some diseases and infestations can survive harsh winters.  Burn it or send it to the municipal dump.  Do not add it to your compost.

Now you are ready to prepare your garden for winter gleaners.  No, you probably will not have neighbors foraging your yard for food, but wildlife will glean all winter.  Not only will beneficial insects, caterpillars (spring butterflies), and birds forage on seeds, but they will also use a properly prepared garden for shelter.

Some native bee species will nest in the hollow stems of perennial flowers.  Consider leaving at least one bed of perennial flowers for the bees and caterpillars.  Birds also feed on the seeds of many perennial plants.  Simply allow the seed heads to ripen and split open.  Your perennial beds will benefit from this as well, as some of the seeds will fall into the soil, giving you new plants in the spring.

Winter wildlife also makes good use of the leaves in your yard.  Insects, as well as some bees, burrow in the ground.  Leaves act as insulation, keeping them alive during harsh winters.

If you are in a rural location, leaving your leaves where they fall is not a problem.  Unfortunately, if you are an urban homesteader, or trying to live a more sustainable life while being a member of a homeowner’s association, you are more restricted in the ways in which you manage your yard. If this is the case, consider leaving one small bed of perennials alone and raking a pile of leaves into the back corner of your property. You can also use the fallen leaves to make leaf mold.

Leaf mold is an incredibly good soil to grow plants in and it is easy to make.  Rake your leaves into a pile.  Thoroughly dampen the leaves and place them in a black trash bag.  Cut a few slits in the bag to allow for proper airflow and let the leaves break down.  All you need to do is check the leaves once a month and water them if they are dry.   As long as it looks tidy, it is generally not a problem.  Additionally, you can have your yard certified as a wildlife habitat.  That certification usually eliminates all complaints.

Now you are ready to clean your fall garden.  Start by removing any canes, tripods, and other plant supports.  Wash them off and put them away until spring.  Glass and ceramic yard and garden decorations should also be cleaned and brought inside.  These items will crack in a hard freeze.

Cut bramble canes and put them in your compost.  You can either add the remaining garden plants to your compost bin or use the chop-and-drop technique.  Allowing your removed plants to lie in the garden bed fertilizes the space for spring.  If this is not an option for you, add the plants to your compost or mulch them and spread them over the beds for a neat appearance.

Just when you thought you were finished with weeding, you should weed your garden once more.  Pulling up weeds by the roots in the fall will drastically reduce the number of weeds that pop up in the spring.  Weeding is much easier when you do not have to be so careful about accidentally pulling up productive plants.

Once your garden beds are clean, move on to your containers.  If you are going to overwinter the plants in your containers, cut them back and repot them.  Soil in containers has a tendency to become packed and the plants quickly become root-bound.  Once they are in their new pots, move them to an area where they are protected from strong winds and freezing winter elements.  If you move them indoors, place them under a grow light.

Wash the old containers and let them dry completely before stacking and storing them.  Wet containers can form mold and you will not be able to use them when you pull them out next season.

Finally, take a stroll around your yard.  Was your garden as productive as you wanted it to be?  Did it need more sun?  Were you happy with the plants you chose?  Begin making plans for your spring garden based on those questions.  Make a list of the plants that did well in your yard and those that struggled.  What new fruits or vegetables will you add to your garden next year?  Can you grow more by maximizing space with a vertical-growing element?

Order your seed catalogs.  You will be happy with the work you put into gleaning and cleaning as you spend the winter dreaming about your spring garden.


  1. Timely article as I just gleaned and cleaned my own gardens and yard. Gleaning my vegetable garden is something I really enjoy as it yields some of my favorite things to eat like green tomatoes (for fried green tomatoes and green tomato salsa), and assorted peppers that become jars of homemade sweet-hot pepper relish. Whatever is left of the kale, and turnip, radish and beet tops is such a treat when sautéed together as well.

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