I live in a place that has a five to six month winter season; I didn’t grow up in this place so living here has required a bit of education. It’s good to learn things – proves to you you’re still alive after a long day tugging out tomato vines with your bare hands (because, yes, once again you’ve lost your gloves somewhere out there in the garden). And, of course, just living on a homestead will increase your education. One thing I end up doing all the time around here is make lists. I find them tucked everywhere – my bedside table, the bathroom, the milking shed. The list I’m currently working on is Things to do to Prepare the Homestead for Winter. Oi. FYI, this list is loooooooong and as soon as I finish typing this I have to go clean out seed heads and cut back Rugosas and muck a goat barn and…
To Do List to Prepare the Homestead For Winter:
1. Clean up the spent plants and other piles of “stuff”
You’ve meant to clean up all during planting, growing and harvest season. That means the piled weeds, now burned to a crisp in the summer sun need to actually be moved from the space next to the bean patch where you left them (promising your beans you come back soon to clean it all up) and put in either the trash, green waste container or compost pile (as long as there are no weeds with seeds).
It also means you have to come to terms with the fact that the first October frost really did kill your tomato vines and that darkened, drooping look of their leaves isn’t some vegetable fashion statement:
“They’re dead, Jim.”
Pull them up.
Look around for anything dead or dying and pull it out of the ground, being careful to shake off any dirt so you don’t waste it. You can create a burn pile if it’s legal where you are (you’ll need dry wood to mix with your semi-green garden material) or you can compost it. We feed quite a bit of the half dead material to our animals as well.
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The chickens we can let roam in most areas and they’ll have the ground cleared and level within a week. The goats are not as trustworthy with, oh say, the trees and even building structures I’d like to keep so I don’t let them just free range in my garden. I have been known to take them on a carefully guided walk-about in the yard; a goat on a leash is a very funny sight.
However you choose to dispose of your spent organic material, do it now before it gets any colder or the snows cover your piles. Leaving this stuff around can wreak havoc on a sustainable system by providing habitat for bad bugs and pathogens that can overload your healthy garden environment come spring.
2. If you have perennials that need to be moved or thinned
Now is the time to do it before the ground freezes. You can tell if you have a perennial that needs to be moved if it looks cramped where it is or it’s obviously outgrown its site. It may also be dying in the middle.
If it’s something like a bulb or tuber, it may be coming up out of the soil trying to get your attention. Really, the best time to divide a perennial is the year it looks its best – wait for that season to finish and perform some mild dividing surgery.
There are lots of books and internet articles on this topic and I refer you to them for the details but just keep in mind that your perennials will perform better for you if you do them this service every few years. Replant your extras or give them to neighbors – especially if I’m your neighbor.
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3. If you have fall/winter veggies in the ground
Make sure you have something to cover them with on those really cold nights. Even in snowy climates, if you’ll just provide some protection, you can get things like mache and kale to perform pretty much all year round.
Eliot Coleman is a great resource for info on this topic and I highly recommend his book Four Season Harvest.
If you don’t have anything on hand (I recommend Agribon which you can buy from Johnny’s Seeds and various other companies or even horticultural plastic will work but will probably burn up pretty quickly in cold climates), you don’t want to lose all that hard work and yummy green stuff in the winter just because you didn’t have the right blanket to tuck in your babies.
4. Double check your orchard
For any damaged limbs or signs of disease; treat immediately as you want your trees going into the winter strong and healthy.
Some people do their actual pruning this time of year because they’re so busy with planting in the spring; I’m too chicken for that here in my zone five area but go ahead if you think your area is mild enough. The main risk is winter frost damage to the new growth that pops out when you prune; the frost can destroy a small branch to a whole limb, sometimes weakening the tree to the point of eventual death.
On the other hand, I ALWAYS run out of pruning time in the spring (granted, I’m trying to revive some older trees but still, I only have six established trees and seven new trees). Anyway, the pruning decision is up to you, they’re your trees.
If you think fruit trees or any perennial needs a boost, you can fertilize lightly (stay away from a high nitrogen count if you have severe winters as that will encourage new leaf growth which will just freeze off and stress your plant) but most especially mulch them. Most conventional literature just says don’t fertilize in the fall but if your plant really needs a boost, it’s better to feed it than starve AND freeze it.
5. Gather all your seed starting stuff
Back into one place and clean it so that it’s ready to go by January or February (if you’re starting things like artichoke or bedding plants). You think you’ve got months before you’ll need it and you want to enjoy the break.
Just do it now and you’ll thank me.
How many times have I missed my first indoor, seed starting dates because I was going to have to go all over the place looking for my pots and soil and warming mats and it was just easier to drink rose hip tea and read the seed catalogs? Too many, my friend.
Make a nice stack of clean pots and clean starting medium wherever you’re going to be starting your seeds next year. Make sure you have whatever rack heat source and lighting that you’ll need and then come back in a few months and sing your own praises because you are awesome and ready to go.
6. This is the best time to add compost to your beds
So they’re ready to go in the early spring.
If you were going to use them, in harsher climates, hopefully you’ve already planted your fall cover crops. In milder climates you can probably still put some down – something hardy like a winter rye. As soon as they pop back up in the spring, you can till them under when the ground can be worked.
You can also plan now for your spring cover crops; just keep in mind that you won’t be able to plant in a cover cropped area until you can till under the green manure and wait a few weeks for it to decompose. I love cover crops and they’re very easy to use, but you do have to do some math and planning.
FYI, with any of the legume crops, if you want them to fix nitrogen you’ll need to keep them in the ground long enough for the soil to get to 60-80 degrees with any higher or lower temperature affecting the plant’s ability to fix nitrogen. Not all legumes are created equal, either – garden variety beans will generally fix less nitrogen than something like a clover.
Tilling them under and allowing them to decompose is great, letting them pass through the gut of an animal seems to be even better, according to some research. We do both, till under in the garden beds and grow for the animals nitrogen rich crops so that we can compost their manure.
7. Consider joining or starting a local seed swap
Baker Creek and Horizon Herbs are my favorite seed houses (although, that’s like asking me what my favorite flavor of ice cream is – I have a lot of favorites even though I’m pretty picky) but I just can’t afford to buy seed like I used to.
Think about growing an heirloom and saving the seed next year. I advise you start with one crop – tomatoes are fun and easy. Kale is super easy and so is lettuce. Radish is easy and even something like carrot isn’t a challenge except that it’s a biennial and you’ll have to keep it in the ground for two years before you can save seed. We’re back to the little bit of math and planning I mentioned earlier. Make sure you let the kids plan their own gardens, even if you’ll end up explaining there is no plant that grows saber tooth tigers.
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8. Harvest the last of your herbs
Including roots. I’ve forgotten many a last basil crop as I wind up the season and I’m always sorry come February.
With your clippers in hand, go visit your sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, wormwood,borage, feverfew, comfrey, plantain, your gorgeous mint or whatever it is that’s leafing beautifully for you.
If you need your Echinacea roots, go get them – no time like the present. Start thinking of all the wonderful, winter teas you’ll make as well as the herbal supplements for health and well being.
Make sure you wash and dry everything right away; I just lost a lovely batch of comfrey because I forgot I dropped it into the bottom of a basket of last tomatoes that I didn’t get to for a week.
9. Wood chip and/or straw mulch
If you’ve planted for your zone (no cheating because winter is unforgiving – if it says zone 5, it means it), you’re really just protecting from nasty winter winds. Where I live, I usually straw mulch my strawberries, asparagus and leeks. I have a few new plantings that I’ll mulch this year, too, especially around the roots of my David Austin.
10. That goes for the animals, too!
If you’re growing breed appropriate to your zone, then what you really need to protect them from is icy winds and wet. Double check that your pens are winterized. At our place, that means we put the windows back in the chicken coop to cover the open hardware cloth of summer (although, we always leave a little bit open for circulation). We also double check the paint and roofing on any shelters to make sure that they’re in good condition.
We make sure the animals have clean hay – the poultry we allow to build up their manure on their hay layer for warmth (adding a new layer of hay when it gets yucky) but the goats we’ll clean out and replace at some point during the winter or early spring. Boost their herb and mineral intake to prepare them for the winter.