Gardening with Estella Heitman: Fall garden preparation

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— Whether you are interested in growing the best vegetables our Yampa Valley growing season allows, or whether your interest lies in ornamental flower beds, trees and bushes, fall is the time to get ahead of the game for next year.

Clean up: If you are planting in an existing area, now is the time to clean up the beds. Clip perennials back as they die with the frost. Remove all weeds. Healthy leaves may be shredded, tilled into the soil or added to your compost pile. Be sure to dispose of any leaves, stems or flowers from sick plants.

Soil enrichment: Now is a good time to have your soil tested. Soil test kits are available from the Routt County Extension Office, 136 Sixth St., in Steamboat Springs. Soil testing kits are available for a nominal fee and include instructions for soil gathering. Usually soil is harvested from several areas in the garden or yard. Results from these soil tests will allow you to add essential nutrients to your soil in appropriate amounts. Fall is an excellent time to add organic matter to your garden area. Adding organic matter in the fall allows time for the soil to process the nutrients. Organic matter includes finished compost, raw shredded plants and leaves and organic nutrients. You may purchase commercially prepared compost or add seasoned compost from your own compost pile. Seasoned manure is another way of adding organic nutrition to your soil, though there are numerous pitfalls to be avoided in using manure, including addition of unwanted seeds in your beds, burning of plant roots and interference with seed germination from improperly seasoned manure. Most garden centers sell bagged, composted manure.

Mulching: Newly divided and tender plants, trees and bushes may benefit from addition of a protective mulch to a depth of 4 to 5 inches. The mulch is added to protect the plant from the effects of extreme temperature changes and to maintain needed moisture. Such protection especially is important in areas that do not receive protective snow cover and where the plant beds may be subjected to scouring winds. In the Steamboat area, the heavy snows that accumulate through the winter act to insulate tender plants, and mulching may be less crucial but still might be helpful to dormant plants. Established perennial beds usually do not require extra mulching.

Labeling plants: Unless you are very familiar with the plants in your garden, it is a good idea to label the existing plants so that you will know what they are as they emerge in the spring. Such labeling will prevent mistaking them as weeds and also will allow you to provide the type of care recommended for each plant. There are a number of labeling devices available at local garden centers. The hard plastic labels/instructions, which are attached to your plant when you purchase them from the nursery are excellent for marking your dormant plants.

Estella Heitman is a Colorado Master Gardener with the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 or email: csumgprogram@co.routt.co.us.

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