Preparing Your Garden for Winter
As the trees begin to change color and the autumn frost date approaches, you might be sad (or relieved) that gardening season is coming to a close. Once you've harvested everything, it's easy to just leave your garden to be covered with snow over the winter. However, doing a bit of fall clean up goes a long way in setting your garden up for success and even saving you time and effort next year.
Once you have harvested all of the seeds you want to save for future years, the first step in preparing your garden for winter is to remove all the plants that are no longer producing. Many plants will continue to grow until the first frost, and some cold hardy vegetables will continue to develop even after that date. If you have plants like tomatoes with fruits still on the vine that haven't ripened yet, you can speed up the process by cutting off all growing tips of the plant. This is called topping and signals to the plant that it's time to wrap things up for the season. Once you've harvested everything from a plant, yank it out of the ground. Pull any weeds out by the root as well.
Other vegetables, fruit trees, berry bushes, and many herbs are perennials, which means they will come back year after year. You should leave these in the ground so they can regrow in the spring. I recommend looking up winterizing instructions specific to each plant, but generally you will need to prune the plant and cover it with protective fabric or mulch before the first frost. Continue to water perennials until the ground freezes, but do not fertilize them until next year. You may need to transfer some plants to containers and bring them indoors for the winter.
Rhubarb, asparagus, and strawberries are three common perennials that must be pruned and covered in the fall. Image by RhubarbFarmer (unmodified).
While pruning and removing plant matter from your garden, make sure to set aside the branches and leaves that are diseased or infested with pests. You can put healthy plants in your compost pile, but weeds with seed heads and plants that are diseased should be thrown away to prevent them from spreading spores, seeds, or pest eggs. If these get into your soil, they will return to afflict your plants in future years. You should also prevent future disease by rotating your garden layout each year.
If you've removed all the plants from a certain area and plan to garden there again next year, you can go ahead and add soil amendments like compost or fertilizer on top of the soil. This will make next year's soil healthier because earthworms and bacteria will incorporate these materials into the soil over the winter. Once you've added any soil amendments, you can cover the area with a mulch or plant a cover crop. Both of these will help to prevent erosion and keep nutrients in the soil during the cold months.
Put those fall leaves to good use by turning them into mulch! Other options include straw, wood chips, and grass clippings. Image by EESC at Oregon State University (unmodified).
Autumn is also the perfect time to expand your garden with minimal effort by using the no-dig method of covering an area of grass with newspaper or cardboard, getting it wet, and piling mulch on top. The grass and weeds underneath will die off during the winter, leaving you with a space for a garden bed in the spring.
Last but not least, make sure to properly clean and store all of your gardening tools and materials for the winter. Wash out seed trays and buckets with soap and hot water and scrub dirt off of stakes and trellises - this helps to prevent rust and disease spread. It's also good to clean and oil any metal tools. The video below demonstrates several easy techniques for doing so.
Once you've prepared everything for the winter, it's time to take a vacation from gardening - until you begin to plan next year's garden, that is. As always, if you have any questions or tips to share, please comment below!
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