It's time to wrap up what has been a strange and challenging garden season, one that was exceptionally cool and exceptionally dry and wet, in turns. This summer, the northern two-thirds of the state had frost in mid-August, while parts of southern Minnesota flooded in mid-September. And even though we had a warmer-than-usual September, you could count the hot summer days on one hand.
Despite all of that, many garden flowers bloomed spectacularly and even heat-loving vegetables finally came around in September's warmth. Regardless of how successful your garden grew, there are certain must-do chores that demand attention in autumn -- particularly if you'd like to get next year's garden off to a good start. Here's a list of suggestions to keep you busy on some of the crisp, sunny days that remain before the snow flies:
Rid the garden of weeds, particularly tough perennials such as dandelions, thistles, quackgrass and bindweed. Compost most weeds only if they aren't blooming or loaded with seeds. Trash the quackgrass and bindweed; they're likely to sprout in a compost pile.
Remove frost-damaged annuals and vegetables that are no longer productive. Unless they're diseased, throw them onto the compost heap.
Cut back flowering perennials once their foliage is yellowed or frost-damaged. If they're not diseased you can leave them upright to help trap insulating snow.
Leave ornamental grasses standing. They'll provide winter interest until heavy snows finally knock them down.
Plant tulips and daffodils for spring color. They'll even bloom in the shade, though you'll have to treat them as annuals and throw them out after the first year.
Leave pansies in place. If you mulch them heavily when the temperatures drop, you might be able to coax them to come back next spring.
Trim iris foliage back to 5 or 6 inches to reduce opportunities for iris borer over-wintering.
Protect hybrid tea roses and other tender roses by tipping them into trenches or pruning them back and mounding 10 or 12 inches of soil over them. Rose canes may be killed by temperatures that drop below 20 degrees. If nothing survives above the graft union, they're worthless.
Apply winter mulch once the soil begins to freeze. Add 4 to 6 inches of straw or 10 to 12 inches of fallen leaves to perennial beds. If the soil hasn't frozen by late November, mulch anyway. If we get an early snow, mulch right over it. Your plants will be protected from periods of unseasonably warm weather in January or February when snow can melt and leave them vulnerable to a sudden drop in temperature.
Empty large outdoor planters and clean them thoroughly before putting them away for next year. Store them in your basement or garage, out of the elements where moisture, freezing and thawing can crack and break them. The soil they contained may be spread in garden areas or added to your compost pile.
Drain garden hoses and sprinklers before bringing them in for the winter.
And if there's time, clean and organize your garden tools so they'll be ready and waiting next spring.
Deb Brown is a horticulturist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service Yard and Garden Line. For help with garden, plant and insect questions, call the Yard and Garden Line at 612-624-4771.