October has been beautiful, but we must face the fact that the growing season is ending. All of the signs are here, crisp and cool nights, the sounds of geese flying south and shorter daytime hours.
As I write this, many flowers are still in bloom and a few shrubs and vines are brilliantly colored. This is a good time to note some to plant in your own yard next year. Mums and asters highlight gardens now, as they are short day bloomers, but most everything else is beginning to shut down. The first things that are killed by frost are coleus, impatiens, and begonias. Coleus is very easy to root (in water or potting soil) so take 4-inch cuttings of your favorite varieties and you will have plants for next year.
Dig and divide peonies after the tops are killed by frost. They should have 3 to 5 eyes per division and the eyes should not be planted deeper than 1 to 2 inches. Cut back peony and hosta stems close to ground level to prevent fungal diseases. A sharp bread knife is a slick tool for this job. Remove and discard all of the brown foliage from irises and trim the green leaves back to 2-3-inches.
The rest of the cleanup depends on the type of gardener you are. If you like the neat and tidy look, cut down all of the perennial foliage and pull out the annuals. If you prefer a natural look and want some winter interest, leave the plants standing, especially ornamental grasses. This gives improved hardiness particularly to salvias and mums, which will survive better. You may wish to spread the seeds from rudbeckias and coneflowers in prepared soil. Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees and we have been stockpiling them to put on our roses. Whatever method you choose to protect your roses, try to wait until there have been freezing temperatures for a week. If you use the Minnesota tip method you might wish to dig the trenches now. Only cut the best roses to enjoy inside, otherwise cease deadheading, and leave the rest to form rose hips. This tells the plants to start shutting down for the winter. After the frosts, prune the stems back to 18 inches and remove and destroy all the diseased leaves. If you use the leaf method, surround the plants with a 4-foot fence (we use snow fencing). Cover the plants with 3 feet of dry leaves, packing them down gently.
Leaves are an excellent source of winter mulch, but they should be shredded, as whole leaves tend to form tight mats that could smother plants. Some gardeners till the shredded leaves into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil and by next spring the leaves have decomposed and enriched the soil.
Try to add some new spring bulbs each year. October is the peak time for planting bulbs, although you can still plant tulips in November. After a light frost dig up all of the tender bulbs such as begonias, gladioli, cannas and caladium. If you have a Hibiscus, Oleander or Bougainvillea potted plant, bring it indoors now. They may lose some leaves due to the lower light, but they will releaf. Keep them isolated from the other houseplants for a while and watch for insects.
Gardeners all have many frustrations, failures and successes and we should keep a record of them. I have been frustrated all year by woodchucks, rabbits, birds and especially squirrels that continually dig up my containers. Now our neighborhood has become the residence of a group of 10 turkeys. So far, there appears to be no harm done except that they chase the local cats. The successes have outweighed these annoyances and I take many pictures. West Fargo Gardener, Bob Alin, had quite a success with a castor bean he started from a seedling. It is making a big show in his fall garden.