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With cold frames, you can grow fresh greens through the winter.

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It’s that time of year around Colorado Springs when your vegetable garden hibernates for winter. While it might be tempting to leave things be and let nature take its chilly course, you can do a few things now to put your garden to bed that will reap dividends come spring.

Larry Stebbins, founder of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens and author of “A Backyard Vegetable Gardening Guide,” shared some tips to clean up the garden and prepare beds and soil for a winter snooze. It can be a lot of work, but you don’t have to do it all at once, he advised.

“I do it in stages. If I did it all in one day, I’d be tired,” said Stebbins, who shares his knowledge on The Garden Father website and blog, a superb resource for Colorado Springs gardeners.

Gather up stragglers

“When a plant is beyond its productive point, harvest it out. Right now, this means tomatoes, peppers, squash and beans,” Stebbins said.

Even with this week’s colder weather, you might have some peppers and squash still on the vine.

“If you still have hot peppers and you want to dry them, you can dry them right on the plant,” Stebbins said.

Pull up the plant, roots and all, and hang it in a dry, warm place. You can put a paper bag over it with the opening facing down, keeping out dirt or dust. That’s especially helpful if you’re hanging it in a dusty garage or shed. As the peppers dry, simply pick them off, Stebbins said.

When you harvest squash, leave 1 to 2 inches of the stem still on, “which will allow them to store longer,” he said.

“You’re not going to gain anything if you leave them in the ground any longer. If they stay out before the first hard frost, they will have a harder rind. If your fingernail can pierce the rind easily, eat those squash first.”

This is an opportune time to bring indoors any garden herbs, which can be used through colder months.

Also, it’s a good time to build and install cold frames to plant cold-hardy greens. “You may have to germinate some of the seeds inside. Look for a package of lettuce seeds that says ‘mixed.’ Then you won’t have to figure out which one is going to work. Cilantro does well through the winter, as does kale,” Stebbins said. “Most cold frames are open-ended glass or plastic. You have to open them on sunny days and close them at night so plants don’t freeze.”

For details, visit The Garden Father blog.

Cleanup and compost

Early October is the perfect time to remove debris from the garden.

“Plants need to be taken out of the garden and composted,” Stebbins said. “There’s some controversy with composting tomato plants. Some people don’t like to do this because they say it encourages disease, but I compost mine.”

Around the house: Before you blow out that sprinkler system, hear this

It’s important to leave the roots of bean and pea plants in the ground because the roots have “nitrogen-fixing nodules,” he said. “There’s a bacteria in most soils that will attach itself to the roots of beans or peas as a nodule. Inside the nodule, those bacteria can take elemental nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it to usable ammonia nitrogen for the plant.”

The ammonia is used to form amino acids and nucleotides, improving soil fertility.

“Legumes, such as dry beans, fix a portion of their nitrogen needs from the atmosphere. Thus nitrogen fertilizers may not be needed if soil tests indicate adequate residual nitrate-nitrogen,” says the Colorado State University Extension.

Fertilize and feed

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Nitrogen-fixing root modules on bean plants.

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“Fall is the best time to work in your nutrients. It absolutely needs to be done in the fall,” Stebbins said. “Keep in mind that none of us are smarter than Mother Nature. We’re going to make mistakes, put a little too much of this or that in our soil. Mother Nature will correct us over the winter.”

Working in amendments such as manure and compost is best done this time of year. Amending soil now means some of the work will be done by the time growing season starts.

Stebbins recommends adding a layer of animal manure to soil every three years. Doing so more often results in too much salt in the soil.

“Every year we need to add something to fluff up our soil. This is especially important in Colorado, where our soil bakes into a hard crust,” he said.

The best product to work into soil now is composted cotton burr, the nutrient-dense parts of the cotton plant left after a cotton harvest. It can be purchased at any of the “mom and pop” garden centers in town, such as Rick’s Garden Center, Phelan Gardens, Harding Nursery or Don’s Garden Shop. It might not be available at big box stores, Stebbins said.

“It’s an excellent soil amendment if properly composted,” he said. “Add a 2- to 3-inch layer on top of garden beds and work it into the soil. Also add pelletized fertilizer according to directions on the package.”

The secret ingredient to make it all work? Sugar, said Stebbins.

“Add dry molasses, which you can buy at the local nurseries. It feeds all of those microorganisms so they can break down all that stuff. Usually you dust it on the garden, like you would on sugar cookies. That’s like a sport drink for the microbes,” he said.

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A garden bed mulched for the winter.

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After you prepare all your beds, it’s very important to mulch them over, Stebbins said. This reduces water loss, protects the soil from erosion and helps to inhibit weeds. Adding a thick layer of mulch also eases the transition to winter.

“You have to do this in Colorado. You don’t see bare soil. Mother Nature tries to fill that in. You want to cover that over the winter,” he said.

Stebbins likes to use straw to cover his garden beds.

“You just want to lay it on after making sure the ground is thoroughly moist. Do not use wood chips, unless they’re from a newly chopped tree and moist,” he said.

The benefit of using straw is that it breaks down quickly and becomes part of the soil by springtime. To keep the straw from blowing away, put something on top of it, such as 2-by-4s.

Finally, Stebbins said he likes to go by a saying he first heard at Don’s Garden Shop: “Freeze moist, best choice; freeze dry, plants may die.”

“You don’t want that soil to be dry when it freezes,” he said. “Remember to get out there and water it before the ground freezes. Once the ground freezes solid, it’s fine.”

Contact the writer: 476-1602

Features Reporter/Special Sections Editor

Michelle is a features reporter and special sections editor for the Gazette. A Penn State journalism graduate, she joined the Gazette in 2015.

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