Putting your Colorado garden to bed for the winter

Autumn weather so far is resembling summer, other than the brief cold snap last month.

Along with recent 80-degree days, there are dangerous fires still burning in parts of the state. The city of Fort Collins is on water restrictions because of drought, the Cameron Peak fire and the maintenance project on the Horsetooth Reservoir.

Next week, temperatures should cool to the 60s with little to no moisture relief in sight.

Will sweater and parka weather arrive soon? Your guess is as good as mine. It is Colorado, after all, and winter can arrive any minute, impolitely skipping a gradual cool-wet fall season that gardeners and landscape plants prefer.

Let’s all make the best of it: Get some exercise outside on these beautiful October days and put the landscape to bed properly.


Our landscapes are dry. We’ve had only one moisture-producing storm of late along the Front Range. (You remember Sept. 8 and 9, when it snowed and gardeners quietly cursed.) For an already dry region that only receives roughly 15 inches of precipitation yearly, we are currently at 7½ inches. Nature has some catching up to do.

Landscape plant roots absolutely need to be moist going into cold weather prior to the ground freezing. Dry roots can spell disaster for perennial plants that went in the ground this past spring, summer or last week. Dry tree roots, coupled with lack of winter moisture, can lead to root and branch death, less foliage, scorched foliage, no foliage or no tree next year.

If you are unsure if your landscape is dry, the simplest way to assess is to poke a screwdriver straight down in landscaped areas, like mulched beds, lawns and around trees. If it goes down easily, you’re probably not too dry. Conversely, if you’re using a bit of effort, there’s your answer.

Water all plants weekly until temperatures remain below 40 degrees and decent rain and snow arrive. Water deeply so all landscapes plants enter winter with adequate soil moisture. Trees need to be watered to a depth of 12 inches. For all other landscape plants, apply water so that the plant itself, and close-by surrounding soil, is moist to a depth of a couple of inches (not wet, but moist). A 2- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch like shredded bark or chopped leaves mixed with chemical-free lawn clippings are readily becoming available as trees shed leaves and you’re still mowing.

If you are new to Colorado, winters can be bone dry for long stretches. That means you need to drag out the hoses and give every plant another deep drink or two between snow events.

Garden cleanup

It is a gardener’s choice whether to cut back ornamental perennials with dead foliage in the fall or spring. Plants receive additional insulation and protection from our frequent freeze/thaw winter cycles when foliage is left in place. Snow-covered foliage can also add interest during the winter months. Birds appreciate seed heads and using the foliage for screening.


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Putting the garden beds to bed

a close up of a greens and broccoli: It's almost time to put our garden beds to bed.

© Provided by Anchorage KTUU-TV
It’s almost time to put our garden beds to bed.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – As we bring in the last of our fall harvest, it’s tempting to just dig up the rest of the garden and get rid of the remnants, but current thinking says it’s best to disturb the ground as little as possible.

“The less you can disturb the soil the healthier that ecosystem is,” says Master Gardener Dohnn Wood. “Think of it as if someone came in and just took a back hoe to your street. Your life would be really disrupted right? It’s kind of the same thing. If we were to rip up the soil and turn it all over, all that life that’s happening under the soil would all be disrupted and that’s actually what feeds your plants so the less we can do to disturb that, the happier that life will be and the more plentiful.”

The Woods still have food left to harvest but some of their garden beds are ready to be put to bed for the year, with the goal of improving the soil and making their spring work as easy as possible.

The first step is getting rid of the remaining vegetable material.

“Traditionally, what we’ve been told is to pull that up, to just twist it up and pull it out by the roots,” says Wood. “But the current thinking is, to cut that off.”

This leaves the root of the plant in the ground to feed the microbes in the soil.

Wood also says to pull out any perennial weeds, like dandelions so they don’t get a start for next year, then add a layer of compost on the top.

“You can buy bagged compost,” says Wood. “You just want something that’s biologically active. And we’re going to cover the bed with about an inch of fresh compost.”

The compost is added to replace the nutrients that are taken out of the soil during harvest.

“If it was in the wild, it would have just fallen down and started to be eaten by the bugs,” says Wood. “So we’re having to replace that with something because we’ve taken the food for ourselves.”

“There is no waste in nature so if we try and mimic those concepts, we can grow tons of food in small areas, without really a lot of work,” Wood concludes.

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