Cleaning up Your Diseased Garden

Let’s face it, by the end of the growing season, many plants aren’t looking too good.  The heat, drought, bugs and diseases have turned them from assets into liabilities.  If the spots and rots have been active with your shrubs, perennials and other garden plants, it’s time to act.

Plant pathologists tell us that disease biology is such that most pathogens live from one season to the next on infected plant debris.  A good clean up and removal of these plant parts can significantly reduce the level of infection during the following season. 

For trees and shrubs, wait until leaves drop off, then mow the leaves into the lawn with a mulching mower to speed up the breakdown of infected plant material, or simply rake up the leaves and remove them from the site.  Inspect branches and stems for cracked or discolored bark that might indicated the presence of a canker or gall.  Mark these branches and your calendar to remove them in March.

For perennials, cut the stems off at the ground level and remove all infected plant material from the area.  The stems of healthy plants can be left for winter interest and wildlife/pollinator habitat.

For veggie gardens, remove all stems and leaves of infected plants and remove them as well.  If you have an active compost pile which you turn monthly, you can place them there.  If not, it’s best to place these materials in the trash.  As best you can, rotate plants to discourage the buildup of diseases.  For example, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant should be placed as far away from their current spot as possible, rotating to other veggies that usually don’t become infected with problems typical of this group such as septoria leaf spot and early blight.

Trellises, tools and other equipment should be removed from the garden and then cleaned with a 1 part bleach to 9 part water solution.  (Wear old clothes to avoid ruining your favorite gardening shirt).  Use a brush such as the ones used to scrub car tires to remove soil and disease spores, then rinse with fresh water from the garden hose before storing indoors or in an outdoor shed.  

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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