The summer growing and fall harvest seasons have ended and now it’s time to let yourself and the garden rest. Not exactly. It’s the perfect time to prepare your garden for winter so it will be more productive next year.
You can still grow fresh food in the garden throughout the winter in most climates. Many greens grow better when the temperature is cold. And even if you don’t want to eat the greens, the wildlife will enjoy them and the plants will protect your garden soil.
Get back outside and prepare your garden for winter with these tips.
Remove all dead plants, old mulch, and other debris from the garden. Discard organic matter from the garden if there is evidence of pests or disease. Add it to the compost pile if it’s pest and disease-free.
Compost or Manure
Add 2-4 inches (5 – 10 cm) of compost or well-rotted animal manure on top of the garden soil. Work this in 6-inches (12.5 cm) deep. Fallen leaves can also be added to help improve soil structure and fertility.
If you do not want to plant a winter cover crop, work the compost or manure into the soil. However, ensure you allow the leaves to remain on top of the soil throughout the winter months. The leaves will help prevent soil erosion and can be worked into the soil in the early spring.
Winter Cover Crop
Winter cover crops include collard greens, kale, mustard green, turnips, parsnips, small grains, and legumes. Any of these cover crops will help prevent soil erosion, increase fertility, reduce the need for herbicides and other pesticides, and improve soil health.
In mild climates plant radishes, carrots, broadbeans, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and snow peas. This will ensure you have a fresh supply of food during the winter and have a winter cover crop growing.
In early spring, turn the fall cover crop under the soil to act as green manure to improve soil fertility. The cover crop plants will decompose quickly and you can plant spring and summer vegetables as usual.
A winter garden will not produce as quickly as a summer garden. Cooler weather slows plant growth down and there’s nothing you can do but wait. Getting the soil prepared and seeds planted as early as possible in the late summer/early fall will bring in an early winter harvest.
Stagger planting will keep the harvest coming in for weeks. Stagger planting is simply planting the seeds at different intervals throughout the growing season. The seeds for vegetables, such as radishes, are planted every 2-weeks to keep a fresh crop coming to harvest indefinitely.
Each landscape has a unique growing environment. This is why your neighbor can grow gigantic cabbage heads and the cabbage heads in your garden are barely larger than your fist. Understanding your environment and selecting winter crops that will thrive within that environment will enable you to grow more food.
Environmental knowledge will come from trial and error in the garden. If cabbage does not grow well in your garden, try Brussels sprouts or cauliflower. If your climate always gets a few winter frosts, build a hoop system over your garden rows. Heavy, damp clay soil will require you to grow food plants in containers. Tweak the winter garden to suit your unique environment so you can harvest the most fresh food year-round.
Wood Ashes Improve Soil
Wood ashes from a wood-burning heater or fireplace will improve garden soil three ways: by acting as an organic fertilizer; a soil amendment; and an organic pesticide.
The wood ashes will add phosphorus, potassium, and trace elements to the soil. These nutrients will be readily available for plant roots to uptake during the spring growing season. Wood ashes help to loosen soil so it can retain water and have better air circulation.
The organic matter in wood ashes help increase the good bacteria action in the garden soil. It also promotes healthy plant root growth.
Save the wood ashes during the winter in a metal container for use in the garden. After all the embers have been extinguished, scatter the wood ashes on top of the garden soil in areas where no plants are growing. Work into the soil in early spring.
Reserve a bucket of wood ashes this winter to use as an organic pest control during the growing season. Scattered on top of soil like mulch it will deter slugs, snails, and cutworms since these molluscs avoid crawling across rough surfaces. Sprinkling a light circle of wood ashes around cauliflower, onions, beets, peas, and turnips will repel root maggots, aphids, and red spiders that attack these garden vegetables.
Save Some Leaves
Save some of the fallen tree leaves to use as organic plant mulch during the growing season and add some to the compost pile. The tree leaves are free mulch, plant food, and soil amendment.
If you have perennial plants in the garden that remain in-ground year-round, water them well at the end of the season and apply a 4-inch (10cm) layer of organic mulch. Water throughout the winter any time there is little rainfall.
If the perennial plants are bulbs, like caladium, and begonias, gently remove them from the soil before it freezes and store bulbs in a cool, dry location where the temperature will not dip below freezing.