What a great year for gardening, at least in parts of Routt County. North of town, where we live, rain was plentiful and the frost held off until later in September, allowing many of the fall plants to bloom longer and early-season plants to sprout a second flourish of blooms.
But now that a killer frost has pretty much eliminated the possibility of any more foliage growth this season, it's time to get the garden cleaned up so we'll be ready to jump right into gardening next spring.
Frost-killed vegetable and annual plants should be pulled and discarded in the compost heap. Clean up dropped leaves and limp foliage from your perennials, shrubs and trees because insects and small animals tend to make nests and over-winter there. I had a family of mice or voles living among the roots of my spirea last winter, almost killing the shrub.
However, don't be too quick to cut all of your perennials to the ground. Some of the more unusual looking seedheads can give your garden character and interest through the winter. Plus, some shrubs and perennials actually benefit by leaving stems and leaves on through the winter. Butterfly Bush, Spirea and Russian Sage, for example, use their stems to send energy to their roots and to catch blowing snow, which acts as insulation and provides moisture.
In my garden, I don't cut down the tall grasses (Calamagrostis) because they tend to peek out above the snow to add some interest, and I leave seedheads from coneflowers and some sunflowers to provide a food source for birds. The rest of the perennials are cut down to 1 to 3 inches above the ground.
Shrub pruning is best left until late winter or early spring unless you have branches that could be damaged by our fierce winter winds. The exception is rosebushes - except climbers - that can be cut back to 1 to 3 feet tall. Then mound mulch or fresh topsoil or cover with cones or baskets for the winter.
Each winter, many trees in the Steamboat area are damaged by sunscald. Anything that helps snow accumulate on exposed foliage to provide protection from sun and drying winds will lessen the chance that your trees will be affected. I'll talk more about sunscald protection next week.
Grass lawns should be aerated if your soil is compacted. Fall is the time to apply herbicides to control weed infestation and fertilizer designed for root development (slow-release nitrogen or high phosphorus content).
A layer of loose mulch several inches thick around your plants - but a couple inches away from the main stem - helps your soil retain moisture while allowing oxygen to flow freely. It also keeps the soil temperature stable, avoiding the freeze-and-thaw cycle that is harmful to plants.
Finally, take time this fall to amend your plant beds by tilling or forking in a couple inches of rich compost or peatmoss into the soil. Next spring, your beds will be ready to plant as soon as weather permits.
Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.