Preparing Garden For Winter? The Most Important Steps

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H: Hey guys this is H, Phil’s sister from smilinggardener.com and today we are talking about preparing your garden for winter. How do we know it’s time to winterize our garden?

Phil: I do it right before it’s going to snow.

H: What’s the most important thing for preparing the garden?

Phil: For me it is like one really big step and that is doing something to protect your soil over winter. There are some few different ways you can go about doing that.

H: What’s the easiest thing to do?

Phil: Yeah. Like if I guess if we were talking about like a vegetable garden or a perennial garden, certainly one thing you could do is just leave your plants there, your tomatoes, your peppers, your everything, just leave them right there and they will just die back, the nutrients from the plant will go back into the root system of the plants and the top will just die back and become a mulch for the soil and all those nutrients and all those organic matter will makes its way back into the soil and it’s not the most esthetically pleasing, but if your garden is kind of back somewhere where it doesn’t matter and now it will be easiest way to do it and that’s how nature would do it too, right.

H: But what if your garden is in a really high profile area and you don’t want it to look that messy?

Phil:That’s what I have this garden here, its right up by the house and it’s like I try to keep it as a nice garden. So then what I do is take all of that stuff and put it into the compose bin because I really want to get the nutrients out of that and get the carbon, the organic matter out of that. So I take all that and put it into a compose bin and then I like to plan a carver crop.

H: What about leaves?

Phil: If you are not going to plan to carver crop, you want something to protect our soil and so that’s where mulch comes in and by far the best mulch and the most natural mulch is leaves and this is the time of year that we actually get them for free, especially if we have been clever enough to planting and make wild leaves.

H: I think that’s it. Is there anything else that you wanted to say about preparing the garden?

Phil: I did put a few more tips on the blog, so people are watching on YouTube, they can go over to this blog and there is some extra brownie points, there is some extra things you can do to really improve this process of soil building in the fall.

H: Sounds good.

Phil: Hey you know what I should say because you don’t know how to say it yet is for people who haven’t picked up the 15 vital lessons for becoming a better organic gardener, you can do that right on the Home page of smilinggardener.com and that’s where I teach a whole bunch of really cool tips.

H:You are gardening for the winter.

H: Hey guys this is H, Phil’s sister from smilinggardener.com and today we are talking about preparing your garden for winter. How do we know it’s time to winterize our garden?

Phil: I do it right before it’s going to snow.

H: What’s the most important thing for preparing the garden?

Phil: For me it is like one really big step and that is doing something to protect your soil over winter. There are some few different ways you can go about doing that.

H: What’s the easiest thing to do?

Phil: Yeah. Like if I guess if we were talking about like a vegetable garden or a perennial garden, certainly one thing you could do is just leave your plants there, your tomatoes, your peppers, your everything, just leave them right there and they will just die back, the nutrients from the plant will go back into the root system of the plants and the top will just die back and become a mulch for the soil and all those nutrients and all those organic matter will makes its way back into the soil and it’s not the most esthetically pleasing, but if your garden is kind of back somewhere where it doesn’t matter and now it will be easiest way to do it and that’s how nature would do it too, right.

H: But what if your garden is in a really high profile area and you don’t want it to look that messy?

Phil: That’s what I have this garden here, its right up by the house and it’s like I try to keep it as a nice garden. So then what I do is take all of that stuff and put it into the compose bin because I really want to get the nutrients out of that and get the carbon, the organic matter out of that. So I take all that and put it into a compose bin and then I like to plan a carver crop.

H: What about leaves?

Phil: If you are not going to plan to carver crop, you want something to protect our soil and so that’s where mulch comes in and by far the best mulch and the most natural mulch is leaves and this is the time of year that we actually get them for free, especially if we have been clever enough to planting and make wild leaves.

H: I think that’s it. Is there anything else that you wanted to say about preparing the garden?

Phil: I did put a few more tips on the blog, so people are watching on YouTube, they can go over to this blog and there is some extra brownie points, there is some extra things you can do to really improve this process of soil building in the fall.

H: Sounds good.

Phil: Hey you know what I should say because you don’t know how to say it yet is for people who haven’t picked up the 15 vital lessons for becoming a better organic gardener, you can do that right on the Home page of smilinggardener.com and that’s where I teach a whole bunch of really cool tips. H: You are gardening for the winter.

It’s November, which means:

  1. Christmas music is beginning to waft through stores across North America, and
  2. 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

Preparing Vegetable Garden For Winter By Doing Nothing

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

Preparing Garden For Winter By Cover Cropping

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

Preparing Garden For Winter By Mulching

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.

Basically…

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.

Preparing Vegetable Garden For Winter By Doing Nothing

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?

15 Comments

  1. Cathy G. on November 10, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    Do you recommend using liquid microbial inoculants before covering your garden with a layer of compost/leaves, or after (or both)?

    • Phil on November 13, 2012 at 8:50 pm

      Hi Cathy, I spray it on last to cover the leaves.

  2. Erik on November 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Protecting the soil-food web in raised beds can be even more of a challenge. It gets exposed to an enormous number of freeze/thaw cycles during a Colorado winter, and winds often remove mulch coverings. I find it helps to make your beds deep (12”), and to leave a lip to hold in the mulch.

    • Phil on November 13, 2012 at 8:53 pm

      Ya, that’s a great idea. I found for my one garden that’s in a windy area, I had to put up a temporary fencing to keep the leaves in, until some plants grew to knock down the wind.

  3. paisley1943 on November 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    What is calcitic lime and where can I get it?

    • Phil on November 13, 2012 at 8:55 pm

      It is basically calcium carbonate. It’s a kind of lime that is high in calcium, low in magnesium, which is what we want. You may or may not find it in a regular garden center. You may have to go to a farm supply/fertilizer supply store.

  4. Patrycja Drozd on November 17, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    Sorry if the question might sound silly but I am fairly new to gardening. If I was to leave my crop in to decompose till next spring and also cover it with leaves how do I deal with it in the spring, just rake, till or will everything including the roots decompose.

    • Phil on November 19, 2012 at 6:07 pm

      That’s actually a great question. It depends on the crop and on the abundance of your soil food web as to how broken down the crop will be by next spring. If you knock the plants over and get some leaves on there, a lot of the residue can be taken care of, but there will still be some stalks and stems that can be incorporated into the soil in spring or into the compost.

  5. Sheri Sad on February 1, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Hi, we have a good weather in winter which we us it to plant our crops whereas in summer it’s to hot to plant any thing since its a desert. How should I handle the sandy soil and make it better for gardening?

    • Phil on February 5, 2013 at 2:12 pm

      Adding organic matter will be most important – compost, aged manure, etc. Also mulching the soil surface with leaves or straw is very helpful if you can do it.

  6. Lindsay on February 26, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Hi, thanks for sharing these tips, very helpful! I actually purchased some fleece covers for some of my plants this past winter, and they really helped. I mean it doesn’t get SUPER cold where I am but definitely low temperatures. I purchased them from Kinsman.

  7. Shawn on March 4, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    We have been saving the straw and chicken poop for the past 10 months from our coop. Can this be applied to our garden when we till it up? I’m not sure how long the compost has to break down.

    • Phil on March 4, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      You shouldn’t be able to recognize the ingredients anymore. It should look almost like soil. And it shouldn’t be too hot in the middle of the pile anymore – otherwise it’s not done.

  8. ladyjtb on March 31, 2013 at 4:01 am

    Phil, you said you plant a cover crop. What do you do in the spring? Do you till it into the soil? And, how quickly does a cover crop germinate and grow. Does it grow in cool temperatures. How soon do I need to plant the cover crop in order for it to protect? What are the names of the seeds you use? Thanks

    • Phil on April 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm

      I plant a cover crop at the end of summer, 6-8 weeks before freezing temps. I use any number of grasses, such as rye or ryegrass or oats. And I also use legumes such as clover or vetch. I generally combine 1 grass and 1 legume. The grass comes up fairly quickly, while the legume does more growing in the spring. Then, 1-4 weeks before planting/seeding in the spring, I take a hoe or tiller and lightly turn it into the top couple of inches of soil. If there’s excess, it can go into the compost.

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