What a long, strange gardening season this has been.
Hot weather got things started early, and temperatures stayed high for most of the growing season. While we got more than enough heat, we have been sorely short of rainfall. Whether you watered constantly or watched your plants wither, you're likely to be ready to kiss your gardens goodbye and hope for better luck next year.
But wait. There are a few more things to do to get your yard and garden ready for winter:
Water grass, perennial gardens, bulb beds, young trees and shrubs and evergreens of any size if October continues to be as dry as September was. Adequate moisture helps plants make it through winter. If the soil is dry, frost penetrates more deeply, which can damage or kill a plant's roots.
Plant spring-flowering bulbs as soon as possible, preferably in a sunny area where soil drains readily. It's possible to grow bulbs in shady locations, but the blooms will be less robust year after year.
Continue to mow the lawn if it's still green and growing.
Rake fallen leaves. Use them to mulch perennials or turn them into compost. If you don't have lots of leaves, run a mulching mower over them several times to chip them up, then leave them on the grass, where they'll break down and return a small amount of nutrients to the soil.
Remove annuals, herbs and vegetables once they're damaged by frost. Toss them into your compost pile. If the plants were riddled with insects or full of diseased foliage, keep them out of your home composter. Take them to a commercial compost site instead.
Wait to cut back perennial plants until the stems and leaves are no longer green. If the plants look healthy, you can leave them in place to help trap insulating snow and create winter interest. If they showed signs of disease, such as mildew, cut the stems down to the ground and rake up all the plant debris.
Apply several inches of mulch over perennials once the ground begins to freeze, usually toward the end of November. While snow is a fine insulator, it can melt during a warm-up, leaving plants vulnerable when temperatures plummet again. Protect your plants by mulching -- even if you have to apply the mulch on top of a few inches of snow.
Renew mulch around the base of young trees and shrubs. Maintain a depth of 3 to 4 inches of wood chips or shredded bark. Be sure to leave a little space around the trunk or major stems to allow for air circulation.
Wrap thin-barked, young trees with rigid vinyl protectors to prevent critters from feasting on the bark during the winter. You must remove the wrapping in early spring, though, so the trunk doesn't stay moist and rot. If you don't want to bother putting in and taking out the protectors, create a permanent wrap of hardware cloth. Just make sure it's several inches from the bark. Remove the hardware cloth when the bark is thicker and tougher.
Before it gets too cold, prep your garden tools for next spring. Clean and sharpen pruners, trowels and shovels. Drain and bring in hoses once you're sure you won't be using them anymore. Empty any large pots you have and store those made of clay, ceramic or concrete in the garage or basement. If left outdoors, repeated freezing and thawing can crack and ruin them.
Make a few notes about which plants did best this year. If warmer summers become the norm, it'll be helpful to know which plants can take the heat.
Deb Brown is a garden writer and former extension horticulturist with the University of Minnesota.