Winter, in colder areas, is the time when gardens go dormant. Still, it is an important time for the garden and the garden soil. You might have noticed that the colder an area is, the richer is the soil. There are a few important steps that can make the garden soil even better and also help the perennial plants to survive the cold winter months. Before winter settles in for good, make sure that you prepare the garden for winter.
Harvest the garden
Before the frost kills everything, you want to make sure that you harvest your produce. After all, thats why we grow a garden, so we can harvest yummy foods. However, frost does not kill every plant alike. See how different plants react to frost.
Do not rush the harvest!
Cucumbers have to go first, they do not tolerate any frost. Tomatoes and peppers will be next on your list. See how to ripen green tomatoes indoors. Carrots become sweeter with lover temperature, and can be left in the ground with protection, learn more at growing food – carrots. Brussel Sprouts become more tender after there is a real freeze.
Only when outdoor temperatures drop to 0 °F (−17.8 °C) is the garden done. You want to harvest everything before that. If your area does not get temperatures that low, or it is just an unusual event, you can keep harvesting all winter long. Learn more about it: The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production. Here at Northern Homestead we talk about winters that are much colder than that.
Cleaning the garden is much overrated, read more below about covering the soil. It is better for the garden, the insects, and your back if you leave the cleaning till spring. Some plants tend to make a big mess though, so it is good to clean the garden some. Two things, however, should be left in the garden:
1. Greens. By harvesting greens, cut the tops and leave the roots in the ground. You never know how many will survive the winter and continue to grow in spring. These greens will provide you with early salads and will protect the soil from weed overgrow long before you can get to the garden. Spinach has survived unprotected in our Zone 3 garden. We actually plant spinach in August with a early spring crop in mind.
2. Legumes. Legumes (peas, beans, peanuts, lentils, alfalfa) are nitrogen fixers. In order to take advantage of this wonderful natural fertilizer you have to make sure to leave the roots in the soil. Again, just cut off the tops and toss them into the compost pile, but leave the roots in the ground. Learn more about it: How to Clean After Peas in The Garden – What You Need To Know.
Cover the garden soil
The garden soil is your most valuable matter in the garden. To protect it is a high priority. This is a controversial topic because I know many nice people, caring people, even good friends who do not cover the soil. Some do it unknowingly, others because that’s the way they always did it. Others because they like it this way. Too often gardens at the and of the season look like this:
No this is not spring, this is fall. Does your garden look like this? If yes, you are on your best way to ruin your garden soil. Read more at To till or not to till the garden.
Think about this, God created leaves that fall to the ground in autumn. I am sure in His wisdom, God could have made leaves just turn color, for autumn yellow, for winter white, for spring pink and green for summer. Wouldn’t that be pretty? And we would not have to clean up the mess in the autumn. But no, God made leaves fall. Since God is all knowing and also loving, I am sure he did not want to make a mess for us to clean up. That’s just not how God is. He wanted a cover for the soil to keep it warm and nurture it at the same time. We think we need to clean the cover up though. Worse, we even till the soil for winter.
Garden soil is a living organism, it gets cold too. A garden clean and exposed for the winter will struggle. Microorganisms will die. Worms will look for a new home. Beneficial insects will leave your garden. And part of the soil will be blown away by the wind. The garden soil will get depleted. However, if we cover the garden the soil will get better every. single. year.
In warmer zones a cover crop, preferably from the legume family, can be grown. Or even better, grow a winter garden. In colder zones an organic matter cover is needed: leaves, compost, straw, wood chips … whatever you prefer or have on hand. Also mulching perennial plants helps to prevent winter kill, yep just covering the soil.
Strawberries can be buried under mulch. In the spring only healthy plants will make it through the cover, giving you a healthier patch.
Do not worry about cutting back perennials or cleaning up the leaves, plants survive the harsh winters better if you leave both.
Water trees shrubs and perennial plants
When you put a perennial plant to sleep in the autumn you want it to have a frozen root ball. That way when it wakes up in the springtime the roots will have a lot of access to water. Since water gathering systems need to be emptied for the winter anyways, this is a good use for it. Just before the ground freezes, water all your trees, shrubs, and perennial plants.
As soon as snow covers the ground, it is also a good idea to hill up some snow around precious plants. Snow protects and also gives much needed moisture in the spring.
Harvest, cover and water – preparing the garden for winter is easy, but still very important!
Inspiring books for winter gardening: