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For many of us in the northern hemisphere, fall is once again around the corner. The days are shortening. The air has a bit of a nip to it. And the growing season is, sadly, coming to an end.
Time to start preparing your vegetable garden for winter.
If you live in a colder zone, you likely experience frost, and freezing temperatures. Which may leave you wondering what to do with your vegetable garden.
No need to worry. In this post, I’ve listed out 5 key tasks to winterizing your vegetable garden and getting it ready for the cold season.
5 IMPORTANT STEPS TO PREPARING YOUR VEGETABLE GARDEN FOR WINTER
By the time fall rolls around, a vegetable garden can, frankly, be a mess. Many of your plants will be past their prime and instead of an edible garden, your plot may be looking more like a weed garden.
It might seem a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re a new gardener. However, there’s no need to panic. Preparing your vegetable garden for winter may take a little work, but come spring, you’ll be glad for the effort.
And with these 5 steps, your garden will be ready for winter before you know it!
1. HARVEST YOUR CROP
The first order of business is to harvest your crop. How late in the season you can do this will depend on the type of vegetable and your location.
Tender vegetables, such as zucchini, tomatoes, or beans, need to be harvested before the first frost.
Other edibles like cabbages, cauliflower, arugula will tolerate a light frost. The same goes for root crops such as carrots, potatoes, and beets. These guys are considered semi-hardy plants.
Then there are vegetables such as kale, broccoli, or Brussel sprouts, which are even hardier and will tolerate a harder frost.
So, in other words, if you’ve planted a variety of crops, you can harvest in stages.
As with vegetables, herbs too can be tender or hardy.
Some, herbs such as basil, won’t survive a frost. Others, like mint or chives, are perennials and may be able to winter outdoors with a little preparation. This is especially true if you live in zone 6 or above.
Another option with your herbs is to dig them up and pot them, so they can winter inside. The success of this is really dependent on the herb and the light conditions in your home. This article from Herbs At Home talks more about winterizing your herbs.
If neither overwintering nor potting is appealing, then it’s time to start drying out your herbs for use over the winter.
Alternately, you can chop up your fresh herbs and freeze them in ice cube trays along with a healthy oil, such as olive oil. Then, throughout the winter, you can pop a cube into a pan or hot dish for a delicious herb and oil combo.
2. TIME TO CLEAN
Once you’ve harvested your garden, it’s time to make it tidy.
First things first, you’ll want to remove any weeds. Start this task as early as possible. Next, remove dead and dying foliage before the ground freezes.
If you have a compost pile, add any plants you’ve removed. Include here any leaves that may have fallen onto the garden. However, it’s very important to not put any diseased plants or weeds in your compost pile. These, you’ll want to put out with the trash.
Once your plants have been pulled, rake your soil to remove any leftover debris.
Now is a good time to add some compost to your garden. Although you may be tempted to wait until spring to do this, adding compost now is actually a key step in preparing your vegetable garden for winter. The added compost will help feed the soil over the winter months, so it will be nutrient ready come spring.
Don’t forget, during the growing season vegetables gobble up nutrients. So, come fall, that ground may need an extra boost.
Fall is also a good time of year to do a soil test to see if the soil is needing any additional nutrients. You can find easy-to-use kits at any garden center.
Working The Soil:
To help prepare a garden for spring planting, many people work their soil in the fall. This can be done by using either a rototiller or, if that equipment is not available, using a spade by hand.
Turning over your garden’s soil will help loosen and aerate the soil, which is good for drainage and working in any added nutrients or compost. In addition, working the soil can help lessen the chance of some pests and pathogens returning the following year.
However, although there can be benefits to tilling, there are times when working your soil can be a disadvantage. For example, if the ground is too wet. Or if it’s been overly tilled.
If either is the case, one option is to cover your garden beds with plastic or a layer of cardboard and leave it in place over the winter. Not only will this help prevent rains from washing away the added nutrients, but it will also help kill existing weeds and reduce any sprouting seeds.
There is also a whole school of thought that this type of no-till approach to soil management is the way to go. It can ultimately save you time and energy. Additionally, it’s better for the environment as it doesn’t disturb your garden’s ecosystem.
When I had my vegetable garden, I would faithfully rototill each fall. However, as I learn more about the soil, I’m not sure I would do that practice today. No-till gardening is an interesting concept and one I plan on learning more about.
If you’d like to know more about tilling vs no-tilling, this article from SFGate delves further into the pros and cons of each method.
3. FALL PLANTING
Just because the cold season is around the corner doesn’t mean planting can’t be a part of preparing your vegetable garden for winter.
Some crops, like garlic, are often planted in the fall to be ready for a spring harvest. But garlic doesn’t have to be your only option.
Want to learn more about gardening in general? Take a look at my guide on the basics of gardening. It has a lot of helpful hints
If you know your winters are cold and the ground remains frozen throughout the season, consider pre-seeding your garden for an early spring harvest.
By pre-seeding, you’ll actually make the resulting seedling hardier, as the plant will germinate and grow according to Mother Nature’s schedule and in Mother Nature’s environment versus the artificial environment of a nursery.
Even with pre-seeding, you’ll still need to clean up your garden bed and add your compost or nutrients. After that, seed according to the package directions, making sure to water well. Cover the area with an inch or two of mulch, such as leaves gathered from the yard, or straw.
However, if you’re feeling spring is too far off, then consider planting some cool weather crops in late summer for a late fall harvest.
When and what you plant will depend on your location, but here’s a list of a few plants that make for a great fall harvest:
- onions & shallots
- Brussel sprouts
4. NEXT YEAR’S PREP
Now that you’ve cleaned up your garden and done your prep, it’s time to think about what and where you’ll plant next year.
It’s a good idea to take note of which crops were planted where this year and how well they did. This step is important because you should rotate your crops rather than plant them in the same spot year after year.
Different plants require different nutrients. If you habitually plant the same crop in the same spot each year, that section of soil will become depleted of certain nutrients. When this happens, vegetables won’t fair as well. Nutrient depletion is one of the problems these days with industrial farming, where large farms engage in monocrop production.
If you’re thinking about expanding your garden, now is a great time.
Fall is usually wetter, so the ground should be softer and more workable. Too, this time of year, you can also find bargains on soils and compost as garden centers are prepping themselves for the end of the season.
To expand your garden, choose your spot, then mow the grass as low as possible. Using an edger or spade, create a division between your lawn and your new garden spot. Once this is done, cover the area with plastic or mulch to kill the grass and discourage weeds. Alternatively, you can also place a thick layer of newspaper over the area and cover that with compost and mulch.
Come spring, your new bed will be ready for planting!
5. ENJOY YOUR BOUNTY
The last and final step of preparing your vegetable garden for winter is enjoying the fruits of your labor.
You’ve worked hard growing your vegetables and, depending on the type of vegetable, you can enjoy your harvest throughout the winter.
Store vegetables like potatoes and onions in a cool dark place to eat throughout the winter. Other plants, like herbs, can be dried. Still others, like beans or tomatoes, can be canned or kept frozen.
And, of course, any vegetable you pick you can eat fresh from the ground.
You can also collect seeds from this year’s harvest to be used for planting next year.
If you’ve grown potatoes, keep aside a few to be used as seed potatoes for next year. I did this with my garden and the following year’s potato harvest was always fantastic.
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