Putting Your Garden Beds to Bed for the Winter
After gathering the abundance of the fall harvest, it's time to settle into the cool season of rest – and also to let the garden rest. Here are a few easy steps to tuck in your veggie patch for optimal productivity in the spring.
Clearing and Cutting back
After all the fall vegetables have been harvested, it’s time to clear the beds. Clean up any remaining dead plant matter. As long as it is not diseased, you can put it into your compost pile. You can cut sizable stalks at the root level and leave the root in the soil, to decompose over time. Remove any invasive weeds to prevent them from getting a head start in the spring.
If you have backyard chickens, they will gladly assist you in this job, scratching the soil, picking on remaining plant matter, and eating slugs.
Cutting back helps herbs and perennial vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb to grow with new vigor in the spring. Cover all the frost-sensitive ones with straw or leaves to protect them from frost. Cut runners from strawberries, and top-dress them with compost. Cut old fruiting canes of raspberry and blackberry, and prune currants.
Amend and Cover the Soil
Fall is a great time to dig in amendments such as compost, manure, bone meal, kelp, or rock dust. They will have all winter to break down and enrich your soil.
Spread compost on cleared garden beds and use a garden fork or shovel to dig it into the soil. If you have access to organic manure, now is the time to dig some into the soil in the beds where you intend to grow nutrient-hungry crops next year such as potatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Perennial vegetables such as globe artichoke and asparagus also benefit from fall manuring.
Add plenty of mulch over both cleared beds and around winter vegetables. A thick layer of mulch helps to regulate the soil temperature, protects your crops from freezing, and adds organic matter into the soil.
And while we’re on the subject of mulch: fall leaves are an incredible, free source of good-quality mulch! Whatever you do, don’t collect them in bags and set them on the curb to be sent to the landfill. Either rake them up for your compost pile, use them generously as fluffy mulch in the garden, or leave them where they are – it’s free fertilizer for your lawn, and an all-around good thing to do.
Plant a Fall Cover Crop
Rather than let a garden bed lie fallow, grow a winter-hardy cover crop such as rye, vetch or Austrian winter pea. Cover crops have many benefits: they help to prevent erosion, as all those tiny roots hold the soil in place; they aerate the soil and break up compacted lumps; they increase the level of organic matter in the soil. A leguminous cover crop such as vetch or peas adds nitrogen to the soil. Grasses, such as rye, improves the structure of compacted soil. All of them can be tilled under or “crimped” in the late winter or early spring.
Extend the Season
But not all gardening needs to halt for the winter. In our relatively mild winters, winter gardening is totally possible, with a little planning and assistance for the plants. Parsnips and turnips, the Brassica family plants, and leeks, onion and garlic will overwinter without issue, but will need extra protection in the form of row covers and mulches.
Cold frames and greenhouses are excellent for sowing winter lettuce, radishes and carrots, and cold-hardy greens such as spinach, chickweed, mache, and arugula. If you are new to winter gardening, check out Eliot Coleman’s books. You don’t have to forego salad greens in the winter, but nor do you need them imported from California: a relatively small cold frame will provide you with plenty of greens throughout the winter.
With these simple measures, your garden will wake up with the return of the spring, rested under cozy blankets of organic matter and replenished by amendments and cover crops. Before you know it, it'll be time to order spring seeds again!