How to Prepare Your Vegetable Garden for Winter

By , November 2, 2009

Lindsey's garden after the first frost

Lindsey's garden after the first frost. Pretty, huh.

The first frost. What was green and growing yesterday, is today a jumble of limp and blackened leaves. Overnight, your pride and joy has become something of an eyesore, and you’re staring at the mess thinking “now what?”

When the vegetable garden dies in the fall, what’s the best course of action? Actually, doing pretty much nothing is both the easiest and best way of preparing your veggie garden for winter.

Here’s how I prepare my garden for winter…and why:

1. Cut off any dead stalks/vines at the soil level — no need to pull out the roots, and no need to till the soil. There are a few reasons for this. First, I aim to keep soil disturbance to a minimum. Whenever soil is disturbed, an ecosystem is disturbed…and so some of its worms and microorganisms die. The decay of dead worms and microorganisms leads to a flush of available nutrients that plants can use. While there’s never a good time for mass death among our helpers in the soil, autumn is the worst time to turn the soil, since there are no growing plants to enjoy the newly-released nutrients.

Another reason why I leave the roots place is so that they can break down, replenishing the soil with what they removed during the growing season. Leaving the roots in the soil also means that they become a nice habitat for soil microbes.

Plus, it’s much easier than removing the plant material in the autumn, composting it in the far corner of the yard, then hauling it back to the garden in the spring. Easier to just let it sit there and compost in place!

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2. Remove the garden hardware. I take down the non-permanent trellises, stakes, and tomato cages — removing dead plant material, string, wire twisties, etc. — and stash them where I can.

3. Spread mulch over the garden with whatever’s available. Mulching the garden in autumn protects the soil (actually, it protects the living community within the soil) from the harshness and temperature fluctuations of winter. In the spring, you can then till in the partially-decomposed winter mulch. I use autumn leaves on my garden since they’re so readily available, nutritious (!), and free. (So don’t throw away those leaves! They’re precious!!) In my spring and summer gardens, I also use straw with any leftover leaves, but you can use straw any time of year of course. Some other ideas would be: moldy/rotted hay or straw, grass clippings (make sure the lawn wasn’t treated with chemicals), pine needles, sawdust, weeds that haven’t gone to seed, wood mulch (check with tree-trimming companies for free mulch, or perhaps your city has a Christmas tree recycling program and gives away the mulch for free in spring).

One thing I also do throughout the year is bury a few compostable kitchen scraps beneath the mulch all around the garden. They just decompose and disappear into the soil, enriching it. Winter is also a very nice time to do this. I mainly use fruit and vegetable peelings, and coffee grounds. I find that egg shells don’t break down very well, so I don’t use them.

4. Pile up extra mulch around a few tender items. I like to try to overwinter my chard and kale, and this year I’m going to try to overwinter the artichoke plant I started from seed last year. To do this, I stuff as many leaves into a big bucket as I can, to break them down and compact them. Then, I dump the leaves out of the bucket and form a big heap over the plants I want to save. Usually, I end up losing some of the plants over the winter, but most pull through.

5. You could also plant your garlic at this time of the year, but I haven’t had great success with autumn planting; actually, my autumn garlic didn’t do any better than my spring garlic, even though it had spent 5 more months in the ground than the spring garlic had! So, I just wait to plant my garlic in the early spring, about 2 1/2 months before the last frost.

And….well, that’s it! Not much, huh! With the leftover tomato plants, cucumber vines, etc…you can either toss those if they’re diseased, or stomp on them to compact them & break them down, and then compost them. They’d take longer than one winter to compost in my garden, so I do remove them and put them in the compost heap to (hopefully) break down!

How do you prepare your garden for winter? Any special tips to share?

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