It's November, which means:
- Christmas music is beginning to waft through stores across North America, and
- I'm preparing my garden for winter.
The most important task for preparing a garden for winter is getting that soil good and covered.
There are a few ways you can tackle that:
1. Leave The Plants There
When preparing the vegetable garden for winter, and the flower garden, if aesthetics aren't important, you can simply allow your plants to die back naturally and cover the soil, just as it happens in nature.
Their nutrients will be returned to their roots systems and to the soil for use next spring. After these beans are picked, I can just leave the plant right where it is.
2. Compost And Cover Crop
If you want it tidier, which I do because my organic vegetable garden is right up by my house, you can compost all that organic matter and use some other plants to cover the soil, i.e. a cover crop.
Grasses and legumes are commonly used for this, and more recently various brassicas, but lots of plants will do the trick.
3. Mulch Like Crazy
If you don’t put in a cover crop, be sure to mulch like crazy in order to protect the soil, roots, insects and other organisms over winter.
Yes, that means some "pests" will be protected too, but that's okay - we're protecting their predators and many other important organisms at the same time.
Leave the stubble OR cover crop the beds OR mulch the beds.
OR, do any combination of the above. When I'm preparing garden for winter, I put the stubble into my compost bin in early fall, plant a cover crop, and then mulch on top of that cover crop towards the end of fall.
Luckily, the best mulch on the planet is free this time of year: LEAVES (provided you've been forward-thinking and using plants that make lots of it, or clever enough to live downwind of someone with a big tree).
Rake those leaves right into the beds. If you have too many, or if your beds are already covered in groundcovers, mow the leaves right on the lawn or put them into a compost or leaf pile. Definitely don’t put them at the curb - they are valuable!
Of course, if you live in a climate with rainy, wet winters, and you’re growing plants that aren’t suited to that, you may not want to cover those plants with moisture-retaining mulch (yet another reason to choose native plants). In that case, compost them or make leaf mold.
Bonus Steps - Preparing Garden For Winter
So covering your soil is the most important winter prep tip. There are a few extra steps you can take if you're a browner like me.
- Especially if your soil food web is lacking, a light dusting of compost on your mulch will help break those leaves down. But personally, I usually put down my compost before I put in my cover crop or mulch.
- A light dusting of 5 pounds of calcitic lime per 1000 square feet stops certain diseases from taking root, and since the vast majority of soils need calcium, this is one of the few minerals I don't mind recommending without a soil test.
- A liquid concoction that includes a microbial inoculant and some biostimulants also helps break down residues. I don't use much fish fertilizer anymore, but it is great this time of year to bring some nitrogen into your mulch to get that decomposition going.
Of course, after all this we can get into extending the growing season into winter with hoop houses and other structures, which is what I've recently been working on for my online gardening course.
But when it comes to the basics of preparing a garden for winter, covering that soil is rule number one. Any questions?