Every gardener probably has a different version of the “best” way to prepare a backyard garden forthe winter. Because our Ohio garden is large, and each year is different in climate and crops, I findthat our garden goes into each winter with a little different variation of preparedness. Winter preparations occur over several weeks, but perhaps the following suggestions will give you ideas that you can try now and in the years ahead.
One thing that most gardeners will agree upon is that it’s worth the effort to clean out all the old annual plants. Some of the vines and climbing plants will die on their own and can be hauled to the compost by now. Others like tomatoes will wait for a hard frost to die. I’m in no rush to clean out crops if I can still get some green tomatoes or a sweet pepper or two. However, when the season is over, cleaning out the dead plants prevents the build-up of disease and harmful insects. The heat of composting will kill them.
The dead plants and weeds that you clean out from your garden in the autumn become valuable additions to your compost. Don’t worry about knocking all the soil off the roots. Soil contains microbes that will boost the decomposition of your compost. The compost recipe is “two-parts brown and one-part green. Dried leaves, pine needles can be added to the dead plants to provide the “brown.” Kitchen waste, grass and still-green plants will help provide the “green” component of your compost recipe.
If you don’t have room for a compost pile outside your garden area, consider digging trenches in your garden where you can bury this debris along with the other compost ingredients. After one trench is filled and one area of your garden cleaned out, dig another trench for the next area. This will compost and enrich your soil for the next year.
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There are lots more options for your garden before you say good-bye to it until next spring. For one thing, if you plan ahead, your garden can continue to provide food through much of the winter. Kale and collards can be planted in the heat of August and then ignored until cold-sensitive plants have died. Carrots can be planted about late August or September and then covered with straw and not harvested until frost has sweetened them.
The garden is also a good place to create a “root cellar” of sorts. Plants don’t have to be deep in the soil to be protected from the cold. If you have cabbage in the garden that you would like to save for the winter months, dig it up now with the roots attached. Next, dig a hole to put it in, head-first, with the root sticking out to mark the spot. (You might also want to mark the spot with a stake in case you have high snow). When you dig it up this winter, you can remove only the outside leaves and have a perfect cabbage. Potatoes and carrots can also be dug now and preserved with a mound of straw and dirt above them.
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Depending on where you live, you might still have time to put in some plants for next year. Spinach is planted four to six weeks before frost and then covered with straw for a late winter or early springtime treat. It’s time right here to plant garlic, rhubarb and shallots for next year’s harvest.
Some people say that soil should not lay bare through the winter because top soil will be lost to erosion. The best solution for this is to plant a cover crop (see the photo for an example of a buckwheat cover crop as well as compost rows). Cover crops can do more than hold your soil in place. Some plants can also serve as “green manure” when tilled back into the soil next spring. You want crops that will break-down readily, and buckwheat and rye serve this purpose well. A good source of cover crop seeds is Johnny’s Seeds.
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Another purpose of cover crops can be to enrich the soil while they hold it in place. Legumes do this best because their roots have nitrogen-fixing nodules. Red clover is my favorite for this purpose because its stems don’t contain silicone and therefore breakdown readily in the soil in the springtime. Other clovers are difficult to get rid of when you’re ready to plant your crops.
The granddaddy of all cover crops is a mixture of buckwheat, red clover and turnips. The buckwheat feeds the bees, holds the soil in place, suppresses weed growth and breaks down readily after a frost. The red clover enriches the soil, suppresses weeds and also helps to hold the soil. And the turnips? After the buckwheat dies, you can protect them with a bit of straw and have turnips to eat throughout the winter!
I have one more way that I am getting our garden ready this fall, but it is next springtime that I have in mind. Last spring was so wet right up into June that it was difficult to get into the garden to plant seedlings. The only parts of the garden that I was able to plant were the rows that I had already laid out with compost and straw-paths the previous autumn. I am therefore getting my daily work-out now by hauling compost, cart-load by cart-load, from the compost pile in the meadow to the garden. Who knows what next spring will bring, but with every part of the garden in a different stage of preparation, some part might be “just right.” (source)
Tips to Prepare Your Vegetable Garden for Winter
Clean Up the Garden Beds:
The vegetable garden is such a mess by the end of the season that it seems overwhelming at first. Break up tasks over time and work through the garden one bed or area at a time until they are all cleaned up and tucked in for winter.
-Remove All Dead Vegetation: Some diseases, including Late Blight and pests can overwinter on foliage and fruit left in the garden. Remove all dead plant material and any rotten fruit or vegetables. Healthy vegetation can be added to your compost pile. Most compost piles do not get hot enough to destroy disease or fungus. If your plants were unhealthy with mildew, mold or blight, dispose the foliage with the household trash or burn it to avoid spreading it to your compost pile.
-Add a Layer of Finished Compost and Mulch: Push aside mulch, pull any weeds, and add a 1-2-inch layer of finished compost. Lightly cover the beds with the old mulch to help suppress weeds and protect the soil without insulating the beds. Many diseases and pests are killed when the soil freezes in winter. Mulching the beds too thickly could prevent the soil from freezing completely. Once the ground freezes, add another layer of mulch to perennial herbs and flowers.
Get a Soil Test:
- Soil pH
- Levels of potassium (K), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S)
- Level of organic matter
- Lead content
A soil test will recommend how much lime and fertilizer (organic or chemical) to add to improve your soil. Lime is commonly used to adjust the soil pH. Adding lime in the fall is beneficial because it has all winter to dissolve into the soil. Other nutritional amendments can be added in the spring at planting time. Soil tests are available at your local extension office.
Plant bulbs 6-inches apart and 4-inches deep, add a light layer of mulch at planting time, and follow with a substantial mulch layer after the ground freezes and the plants are dormant.
Fall is a great time to expand the vegetable garden. Consider building a few raised beds or square foot gardens right on top of the grass. Many garden centers have bagged organic garden soil and compost on sale in fall.Fill your new beds with fresh soil, add a layer of mulch, and you will be ready to plant when next spring arrives.
Fall leaves are truly gardeners’ gold. I try to gather as many leaves as I can in the fall and fill up my compost bins or store in garbage bags. Fall leaves can be used for mulching in the garden, as a brown component of compost, and leaf mold.
-Mulch: A generous layer of shredded leaf mulch over the soil surface will help suppress weeds, retain moisture, and provide soil enrichment as it decomposes, and encourages beneficial soil organisms.
-Compost: Leaves are the perfect brown (carbon) element for your compost pile. I like to keep an extra bin of leaves available, so I can toss layer into the compost bin as needed to offset the green material (nitrogen) such as kitchen waste.
-Leaf Mold: Over time, leaves gathered in a pile or compost bin will break down to a rich humus that can be incorporated into your soil to improve the structure and moisture holding ability. Leaf mold also provides food for beneficial soil organisms.
One of the easiest ways to gather and shred leaves is to use your lawn mower either with a bagger or without. If you use a bagger, the mower will shred up a nice combination of grass and leaves that can be emptied into your compost bins. Even if you don’t have a bagger on your mower, with some strategic mowing, you can direct the side discharge to gather the shredded leaves and grass into a pile. Then rake up the pile and fill your compost bin or store in garbage bags.
Take time to enjoy the crisp, cool days of fall as you work in the garden. No humidity certainly makes outdoor work more comfortable. Observe the beauty around you and the warmth of the sunlight. Take a deep breath and enjoy the fresh aroma of the soil. Soon all will be covered with snow and frozen until spring.
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Taking the extra effort to clean up the vegetable garden beds in the fall makes it very easy to begin growing the following spring. The beds will be waiting and ready for planting. Simply rake the mulch aside, pull any weeds, amend with organic fertilizer based on your soil test results, and sow seeds or transplant seedlings into the garden. There will be plenty of time over winter to dream and plan next year’s vegetable garden.