Preparing the garden for winter, a time when gardens go dormant. Winter 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.
Harvesting and Planting
Before the frost kills everything, you want to make sure that you harvest your produce. After all, that’s 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.
A few things, however, should be planted before the frost and/or left in the garden:
Greens. We plant spinach in late summer with overwintering in mind. Spinach has survived unprotected in our Zone 3 garden. Read more on growing overwintering spinach here. Kale I hear can do the same, I’m going to try it this year.
By harvesting greens (herbs and green onions too), 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.
Garlic. We plant hard neck garlic a few weeks before the ground freezes. You can read all about it in Growing food – Garlic.
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 if you want, 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.
Cleaning the garden
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 most of the cleaning till spring.
Here at Northern Homestead we like to get out and into the compost most of the annual plants, simply because they tend to make a big mess, so it is good to clean them out. This way, the annual garden is also ready to be mulched, read more about it below.
Perennial plants are mostly left in the garden. Do not worry about cutting back all perennials or cleaning up the leaves, plants survive the harsh winters better if you leave both.
You might want to cut back some seed pots of the perennials, otherwise, they will seed themselves all over the garden.
Also, when cleaning the perennial garden, we think about snow removal. Anything that reaches into a path, is cut back, and we cut back perennials that are in the way for piling up snow.
The majority of plants though are left right where they are, along with fall leaves that naturally protect the soil and provide a hiding place for beneficial insects during the winter.
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 end 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, leaves fall. I am sure it’s not for making a mess for us to clean up. The leaves cover the soil keeping it warm and nurture it at the same time.
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 and will lead to erosion.
However, if we cover the garden the soil will get better every! single! year!
How much material and what to use for a cover you might ask? You will need 1-2 inches (2-5cm) of compost mulch.
The best and easiest cover to work with is compost. It can be an all plant compost or a mixture of well-rotted manure and compost. In dry climates, wood chips work well for mulch, make sure you use the right wood chips for the garden because you will be planting into them in spring.
Keep in mind that there is no need to turn the soil either in the fall nor in spring. A covered garden turns into a no-till garden right away.
Cover perennial plants
Covering the garden soil also helps the perennial plants to survive the winter cold better. Mulching helps to prevent winter kill. If you have tender perennials, gather more leaves around them. We cover our blackberries, kiwi, and lavender plants with bags filled with leaves. This leaves will be great all summer for composting, too.
Strawberries can be buried under mulch. In spring only healthy plants will make it through the cover, giving you a healthier patch.
Most of the perennials though are covered with leaves falling and blowing around. We simply don’t clean, and they are automatically covered.
Water trees, shrubs and perennial plants
When putting trees, shrubs and perennial plants to sleep in the autumn, you want them to have a frozen root ball. That way when it wakes up in the springtime the roots will have access to moisture. Since water collecting systems need to be emptied for the winter anyway, this is a good use for it.
Note, you don’t want to water the plants too early, it might prevent them to go dormant. Water just before the ground freezes.
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!
If your weather allows you to continue to grow a garden even in the winter, here are some inspiring books for winter gardening: The Winter Harvest Handbook, Backyard Winter Gardening, Year-round Vegetable Gardening.