Are you growing a winter garden or putting the garden to rest until spring? Having a winter garden can be a satisfying and low-key endeavor. However, you might also prefer to put the garden to rest for the season. Either way, there are a few key tasks that successful gardeners wrap up this time of year.
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Here are five essential steps for reaping a harvest and preparing for a successful spring, whether you intend to grow crops or put the garden to rest.
1: Weed before Preparing the Winter Garden
Many perennial weeds firmly establish their roots over the winter and come back stronger in the spring. Take some time to weed out unwanted plants.
However, keep in mind that many weeds can be beneficial to creating excellent soil and garden ecology. If you have one of these 5 weeds, compost them in place.
2: Bring out your Dead in the Winter Garden
The next step is to cut back dead plant matter. I like to dispose of it in two ways.
First, I like to chop and drop it right where it is to feed the soil in the winter garden, which is one of many ways to improve soil. It also makes a nice mulch.
*Throw away or burn any diseased or pest-infested plants.
Personally, I don’t cut dead flower stalks until spring because the seed heads feed small birds like finches and chickadees.
3: Add Soil Amendments
If you’re growing a winter garden, then hopefully it’s full of overwintering crops. And HOPEFULLY, you added some soil amendments before planting.
If you’re putting your garden to rest for the winter, now is a good time to mix in organic soil amendments so that soil organisms can process them and make them bioavailable to spring crops.
Do you buy bagged or bulk compost soil to amend your garden? Even organic-approved soil may be laced with herbicides.
You can also encourage soil organisms to take up residence in your garden by transitioning to a no-till garden.
Would you like to yield delicious harvests while partnering with nature? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Vegetable Garden.
4: Make Leaf Mulch in the Winter Garden
Leaf mulch protects garden soil. It keeps nutrients from washing away in rain and melting snow, and it insulates beneficial soil microbes from the cold temps.
Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure, which can be contaminated with herbicides. Fall leaves are both a valuable mulch and soil builder. Leaves that have composted for a full year are called leaf mold, and make a great soil conditioner.
I mulch our leaves with an electric mulching leaf blower. If you don’t have a mulching leaf blower, you can mulch the leaves by running over them with a lawn mower.
Note: I only mulch leaves that have fallen on the lawn, leaving in place those that have fallen in garden and landscaping beds, as they are an important overwintering habitat for many native pollinators and other insects.
Why shred the leaves before using them as mulch?
Non-shredded leaves can form a mat that smothers the plant matter below and prevents excess water from evaporating. It also takes them longer to break down into soil. These pictures show the difference between shredded and non-shredded oak leaves:
Whether your garden beds overwinter vegetables or go to sleep for the season, cover them with a thick layer of mulch.
Although straw makes a great mulch if you don’t have enough leaves, it is often laced with herbicides.
5: Protect Winter Crops
Be prepared to protect your winter garden before the temperatures go down. Floating row cover is a nice investment because it lasts for years, and can be cut to size. It protects against frost down to 28° Fahrenheit, while allowing light and water to penetrate.
There are varying thicknesses based on their ability to hold in heat and allow light through. Here is the row cover that works for me.
The insulating properties of row cover increase when used in conjunction with leaf mulch. My cold-tolerant annual vegetables have always been safe into single digit temperatures with this method. Mulch your vegetables first, then provide additional protection with the row cover.
There are other ways to protect winter crops, such as with a cold frame, low tunnel, or polytunnel.
Blanket Forts Protect the Winter Garden
There is a right way and a wrong way to cover plants with row cover for frost protection. The warmth from the ground protects the plants, so don’t tie the row cover around the base of the plant like a lollypop, because the plant won’t gain warmth from the ground.
Instead, drape the row cover over the plant or row of plants, with extra cloth hanging loosely that can be secured on the ground with bricks or rocks. Picture yourself making a blanket fort for your plants!
Use twice as many bricks and rocks as you think you need—the wind will really give your blanket forts a run for their money.
Putting your garden to bed for the winter?
Follow the same steps as above, minus the extra protection for crops mentioned in step 5.
3 FAQs about Preparing Your Garden for Winter
#1: When should I start preparing my garden for winter?
Start preparing your garden for winter in the fall as temperatures start dropping, or prior to your fall frost date. In my zone 6a garden, I start preparing my garden in mid to late October. You may need to make adjustments for your climate.
#2: How do I prepare my vegetable garden for winter?
Get your garden ready for winter by weeding, cutting back dead plant matter, adding soil amendments, mulching, and protecting any winter crops.
#3: What should I cover my vegetable garden with in the winter?
Cover your garden beds with a thick layer of mulch to help them overwinter, or row cover if you are overwintering crops. A cold frame, low tunnel, or polytunnel can also be helpful.
Whether you’re growing a winter garden or putting the garden to rest until spring, activities like weeding, cutting back dead plant matter, adding soil amendments, mulching, and protecting winter crops will set you up for success.
Are you growing a winter garden this year?
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>>> Get my free 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments for more ideas: